Turning briskly down the street, his cape flapping around him as dark clouds loomed overhead, Malcolm Mead felt the first drops of rain. Winter had marched in with a vengeance. This would be the second storm in just a few days. His front door waiting just yards away, he quickened his pace.
“Let go of me, you horrible man!”
The desperate cry had come from across the street. Turning his head he spied a young woman grappling with his neighbor, Lord Percival Cavendish. Malcolm had never thought him the most affable of men, but he’d never imagined the aristocrat could be an uncouth brute. Marching hurriedly across the cobblestones, Malcolm reached the wrestling couple just as the skies opened and released a torrential downpour.
“What the devil’s going on here,” he demanded, silently cursing the cloudburst. “Forgive me, Percy, but I must insist you release this young woman at once.”
“Young woman? This is no young woman!” the nobleman replied grimly as the girl squirmed in his grip. “She’s nothing but a common thief.”
“I’m not, sir, I’m not,” the girl bleated, staring up at Malcolm with pleading eyes. “It’s a mistake, but he won’t believe me.”
“I’m taking you home with me and sending for the constable,” Percival barked.
“Are you sure about this?” Malcolm shouted over a peal of thunder.
“Quite sure,” Percival growled. “She ran right into me, then I felt her fingers in my pocket.”
“You’re lying. I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“Damn and blast!” Percival shouted as she managed to yank her wrist from his hand.
She turned to run, but Malcolm, a tall man with a long reach, caught her around the waist and lifted her off her feet.
“Put me down!” she wailed, kicking her feet. “Put me down this instant!”
“Percival, go home,” Malcolm said sharply as she squirmed in his hold. “You’re drenched and Mildred will be worried about you. I’ll deal with this.”
“Very well,” Percival muttered, then raising his walking stick and pointing at her, he yelled, “If I see you around here again, you’ll be sorry, do you hear me? You’ll be sorry.”
“Please, sir, please let me go,” the girl begged, apparently running out of steam as the angry aristocrat hurried away. “He’s wrong, honestly. I did nothing.”
“You can tell me about it inside,” he declared, half-dragging, half-carrying her across the street.
He could feel the peering eyes through the windows of the fine houses that lined the block, and he assumed his butler, Corbin, would be among them. Malcolm’s suspicions were confirmed when his front door magically opened as he approached.
“Thank you, Corbin,” he said breathlessly, setting the girl on her feet as they entered the foyer. “Help the young lady with her coat, then find Mrs. Melville and ask her to bring towels. We’ll have tea and cake in the drawing room.”
“No! I need to keep my coat on,” the girl protested. “I’ll get cold.”
“Don’t be foolish, it’s soaked through. Take it off her, Corbin.”
“Yes, sir,” Corbin replied, quickly removing the soaked garment though the young woman continued to argue. “I’ll have this hung in the warming cupboard,” he added, holding it at arm’s length. “I’m sure it will soon dry.”
“Come with me,” Malcolm said briskly, taking the young woman by the arm and guiding her down a wide hallway. “The fire will soon send the chill from your bones. Tell me your name.”
“Let me go!”
“Stop the nonsense. You should be grateful. You’re out of the weather and in a warm home.”
“I want my coat, and I want to leave!” she bellowed, planting her feet and trying to jerk her arm from his grip.
“If you don’t stop throwing this tantrum, I’ll be forced to—”
“Do what?” she shouted, her eyes blazing at him.
“This!” he replied, deftly yanking her forward and landing a volley of hard smacks on her backside.
“How dare you?” she panted, staring at him with wide eyes as he jerked her around to face him.
“If you don’t behave, I’ll take you into the drawing room, put you over my knee, bare your bottom, and spank you very hard indeed.”
“Why would you do that? I don’t want to be here.”
“You’re being ridiculous. It’s a dreadful night, and I’m not letting you go back out there, certainly not until you’ve dried off. Is that clear?”
“Is that clear?”
“Apparently I have no choice.”
“No, you don’t, and now you’ll say thank you. I’m sure you’d much rather be here with me, than in the hands of Lord Cavendish with the constable on the way.”
She paused, then letting out a breath, she nodded her head.
“Yes, I would. Thank you.”
“Finally,” he muttered, continuing down the hall, still holding her arm. “Tell me your name.”
“Uh, Connie,” she panted. “Connie—uh—Smith.”
“Nice to meet you, Connie Smith,” he declared, opening the door to the drawing room and ushering her in. “My name is Malcolm Mead. I suggest you tell me what happened. I know Lord Cavendish quite well, and I don’t believe he would have made such a serious accusation if he didn’t believe it to be true.”
“He was mistaken,” Connie said hastily, walking across to stand near the flaming logs. “I wasn’t watching where I was going, and when I bumped into him I put my hand out to balance myself. He jumped to the wrong conclusion, though I can’t imagine why.”
Malcolm was confounded. The finely dressed young woman was well-spoken. If she was, as Lord Cavendish claimed, a common little thief, she was unlike any Malcolm had come across.
And she was beginning to look vaguely familiar.
“Excuse me, sir, I have the towels you asked for.”
“Ah, Mrs. Melville, excellent. Please come in. This is Connie Smith. She had a run-in, quite literally, with Lord Cavendish.”
“Did she indeed? And then you were both caught in the downpour. Here’s a towel,” she offered, walking across the room and handing it to Connie. “Your hair is dripping wet, but you can dry it off with that. The tea will be here in a moment.”
“Thank you. Very kind, I’m sure,” Connie replied, taking the towel between her hands and rubbing her long locks.
“Mrs. Melville, I must go upstairs and change. Perhaps Connie would like to sit on the other towel. The bottom of her dress appears quite wet where it wasn’t protected by her coat.”
“Excellent suggestion, sir,” Mrs. Melville said, placing it on the chair nearest the fire.
“I assume Baker is in the house.”
“He is, sir.”
“I won’t be long, Connie, and I trust I’ll find you here when I return?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll stay for tea, which I thank you for, but then I must go.”
“As you wish. Mrs. Melville, a word if you please.”
“Of course, sir.”
Walking from the room and closing the door, he moved down the hall with his housekeeper, lowering his voice as he spoke.
“Please make sure she doesn’t leave. Tell Corbin to keep his eye out. Something’s not right about this. She appears quite bereft.”
“If I may say so, sir, her dress is at least a size too big, and her shoes are in a terrible state.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t notice, but women have a keener eye for such things. In any event, I want to learn her story. I have no intention of turning her out into this dreadful weather, especially with night falling soon.”
“Yes, sir. That’s very kind of you. If you discover she is in trouble, will you put her in touch with the home for wayward girls?”
“I’m not sure. I need to know more before I make that decision, but I must get out of these wet things. I don’t suppose we have any dresses here, do we, in case she needs one?”
“I’m afraid not, sir, though she looked to be about the same size as the kitchen maid.”
“Never mind,” he muttered, heading into the foyer to climb the stairs. “I’m probably getting ahead of myself.”
“Sir, may I have a moment?” Corbin asked, stepping forward. Still holding the girl’s coat, he wore a heavy frown. “I’ve discovered something rather disturbing.”
“Can’t it wait until after I have these wet clothes off?”
“Forgive me, sir, but you might want to know about this sooner rather than later.”
“I’m not sure what to make of it, but there are pouches in the lining, and I found those,” he said solemnly, pointing to a table against the wall holding a bronze statue. “As you can see, there are two wallets, and a ladies’ diamond bracelet, which, I must say, looks to be of high quality.”
“Good heavens. You found these items in the coat?”
“Have you opened the wallets? Do you know to whom they belong?”
“I have not, sir, and if you’ll excuse me for pointing this out, is it wise to leave her alone in the drawing room? Your collection of snuff boxes is in there, and some small silver pieces, not to mention the valuables in the curio cabinet.”
“I’m afraid you might be right, but you’ve given me an idea. Don’t allow her to leave, though I don’t think she’ll try. She seems eager for tea and cake. Please tell Baker to meet me in my room. I’ll be there shortly.”
“Yes, sir. He was about to take up your freshly pressed shirts.”
“Ah, good, and put those wallets and the bracelet somewhere safe.”
“Of course, sir.”
Turning away from the stairs, Malcolm walked back down the hallway, turned left at the end, marched through a gallery, turned left again, and approached a second door that led into the drawing room. Cracking it open, he peered inside. His naughty visitor was studying the snuff boxes. Almost a minute ticked by, then he watched in dismay as she made her choice, lifted her dress, and secreted it away somewhere beneath her dress.
“Pouches there too?” he murmured under his breath.
Her dress is at least a size too big, and her shoes are in a terrible state.
Mrs. Melville’s comment rang in his head. Connie had moved to scrutinize the various items that sat in the curio cabinet, and though he couldn’t see her shoes, the dress was definitely ill-fitting. Peter, the footman suddenly entered, with Corbin following carrying a tray. It sent Connie scurrying back to her chair.
“Mr. Mead will return in a few minutes,” Corbin declared, placing the tray on the large, square coffee table in front of the fire.
Lord Cavendish had been right! Connie was a common thief, but as Malcolm made his way back to the stairs and headed to his room, he could think of nothing common about her. She certainly didn’t belong in the home for wayward girls, one of the several charities he supported. Most of the miscreants were from the wretched streets of London, and in spite of her state, Connie didn’t appear to be one of them.
Entering his dressing room, he found Baker, his valet, ready with a change of clothes. As the wet garments were peeled off his body, Malcolm pondered his options. He could turn the young woman over to the police, a choice he didn’t care for, offer her a room overnight, which he didn’t find particularly appealing given her sticky fingers, or turn her out, but he couldn’t imagine doing so in such dreadful weather.
“I don’t know,” he muttered, speaking his thoughts aloud.
“What’s that, sir?” Baker asked, helping Malcolm on with a clean, dry jacket.
“I was thinking about the young woman waiting in the drawing room. I’m sure word has already spread downstairs.”
“I don’t much like the idea of sending her away in this weather.”
“No, sir, it will be a nasty night. Perhaps you’ll be able to find out where she lives and see her home safely.”
“Yes, perhaps that’s the answer, assuming she’ll tell me,” Malcolm remarked. “I’m not sure how willing she’ll be to give me any information.”
“All you can do is ask, sir. Sometimes the direct approach is the best.”
“Quite right, Baker, quite right. In any event, ask Corbin to set an extra place at the dinner table.”
“Very well, sir.”
Making his way down the stairs, Malcolm returned to the drawing room to find her drinking a cup of tea. She looked up as he walked toward her, and though her hair was disheveled and her face pale, he was struck by her beauty. Then his eye caught the plate of cakes. It was half-empty. The girl was hungry.
“Would you like me to pour for you, sir?” she asked, her manners and breeding suddenly on display.
“Yes, I would, thank you, Connie,” he replied, sitting on the couch opposite her.
Everything about her suggested a refined upbringing. Glancing at her shoes, he discovered Mrs. Melville had described them accurately. They were worn and badly scuffed.
“Tell me, Connie,” he began, accepting the cup and saucer, “do you live nearby? I haven’t seen you in the area. Were you on your way to visit a friend in the neighborhood when you ran into Lord Cavendish?”
“No, I don’t live nearby,” she murmured, then lifted her gaze to the painting above the fireplace. “He’s a striking figure of a man. May I ask who he is?”
Though Malcolm recognized the change of subject, he decided not to challenge her.
“That is the man responsible for the house in which you find yourself. The Earl of Brookshire.”
“This is his home?”
“No, this is my home, but he made it possible. My goodness, listen to that thunder,” he exclaimed as the roar exploded above them. “It’s a devil of a night. If you don’t have to rush off, I’d be delighted if you would join me for dinner.”
“Uh, I, uh…”
“I assure you I have an excellent cook, and I would be grateful if you stayed. I would much prefer the company of a delightful young woman to dining alone.”
“That’s very kind of you. Thank you.”
“After the meal, I shall be pleased to personally see you home.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she said hastily.
“But of course I do. It will be dark. What sort of gentleman would allow—”
“Perhaps I should leave after all,” she said nervously, abruptly rising to her feet. “The sun will be setting soon.”
Malcolm paused. He liked her, and he had the growing sense he knew her from somewhere.
“Connie, I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that,” he said firmly. “At least, not yet.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Please sit down.”
She hesitated, then did as he asked.
“Tucked under your dress is a snuff box, one of my favorites I might add, and perhaps other items you’ve secreted away. Then there’s the matter of the wallets and bracelet my butler found hidden in the lining of your coat.”
A glimmer of fear crossed her eyes, and her face began to flush.
“Please don’t worry, I have no wish to harm you or turn you over to the police. On the contrary, I’d like to help if I’m able, but that can only happen if you tell me your real name, why you have the grace of a well-bred young woman, yet wear an ill-fitting and grubby dress, and why your shoes are about to fall off your feet? To put it bluntly, who are you, where did you come from, and why are you stealing?”