He hoisted his leg over the window sash and dropped heavily into the dark chamber, barely stifling a groan.
I am getting too goddamn old for this.
Cursing silently, he rubbed the muscle spasm gripping his shoulder. He should have known better than to climb that tree. Since when had they started growing with so few bloody branches? He had thought he would ascend it with the agility of an acrobat, easily shifting from branch to branch. Instead he had dangled from it like frantic puppy, legs swinging and scrambling, arms quivering. At one point he had lost his grip and nearly crashed to the ground. That would have been fine entertainment for the ladies and gentlemen attending Lord and Lady Chadwicks dinner party on the main floor, he reflected darkly. Nothing like having a masked man plummet from the sky just outside your dining room window as the servants are heaping your plate with stringy mutton and greasy peas.
He stood unmoving, giving his eyes a chance to adjust to the dark. It was quickly apparent that Lady Chadwick liked gold. Everything within her bedchamber fairly shimmered, from the heavy brocade coverlet upon her gilded bed to the garishly carved commode that towered like a throne beside it. No doubt in her private moments she imagined herself the consort of a magnificent prince or duke, instead of the bloated, sniveling fop she had elected to marry. He supposed every woman was entitled to some fantasy in her life. His gaze shifted to the bureau at the opposite end of the chamber, which boasted a profusion of richly decorated bottles and jars. Stealing silently across the shadows, he reached for the jewelry chest rising amidst the clutter.
He eased open the uppermost drawer of the bureau and rifled through the layers of undergarments folded within. The key lay nestled amidst the armor of Lady Chadwicks formidable corsets. Why did women always assume thieves would never think to look there? he wondered. He supposed it was based on the assumption that most men were either too modest or too gentlemanly to rummage through a womans lingerie.
As it happened, he was neither.
Carefully inserting the key into the jewelry cases tiny lock, he turned it once, then raised the lid.
A glittering collection of precious stones lay gleaming upon the dark velvet within. In addition to her penchant for gold, Lady Chadwick also enjoyed the sensation of large diamonds, rubies and emeralds against her skin. He supposed that was fair compensation for enduring the tedium of marriage to Lord Chadwick for so many years. He lifted a magnificent emerald necklace to the thin moonbeam filtering through the window, watching in fascination as its color shifted from near-black to the clear green hue of the river he had played in for so many years as a lad.
The chamber door opened suddenly, flooding him in a wash of light.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," the young woman standing in the threshold quickly apologized. "I didnt realize anyone was in here--"
Harrison watched with grim resignation as understanding swept through her. Ultimately, he had no choice. Even so, guilt weighed heavy in his chest as he grabbed the girl and jerked her toward him. She stumbled forward and he caught her, then kicked the door shut. He clamped a gloved hand against her mouth and twisted her around, imprisoning her slender form against him. Her fear was palpable, he could feel it in the rapid pounding of her heart against his arm, could hear it in her soft, desperate little pants of breath. Self-loathing welled within him.
For Gods sake, focus.
"If you scream, I will kill you," he whispered harshly into her ear. "Do you understand?"
Her body stiffened. He was acutely aware of the scent of her as he held her close. Not roses or lavender, or any of the other sickly-sweet perfumes he was accustomed to women wearing. The girl pinned against him had an unusually light, clean fragrance, like the essence of a meadow just after a summer rain.
"Im going to take my hand away from your mouth now. If you swear to me that you wont scream or try to run away, I give you my word that you wont be harmed. Do I have your promise?"
Harrison warily removed his hand from the girls lips. He didnt know whether he could trust her. Her evening gown suggested she was one of Lady Chadwicks dinner guests. Whatever her reasons for quitting the dining room, it likely wouldnt be long before some dutiful maid was sent to find out what was detaining her. The girls delicate ribcage continued to rise and fall against his arm. Her breathing had slowed a little, and he was grateful for that, even though he supposed it would have been better for both of them had she swooned. Then he could have simply laid her on the bed and climbed back out the window. As it was, he was going to have to tie her up so she couldnt go screaming out of the room the moment he left, compromising his escape.
"Please." Her voice was small, hesitant. "Youre holding me so tight I cant breathe."
She was Scottish, he realized, the sweetly refined cadence of her voice pleasing to him.
"Forgive me." He instantly released her.
She faltered slightly, as if she had not expected him to free her quite so abruptly. He instinctively reached out to catch her, but this time his hold was gentle. She glanced at him over her shoulder, surprised.
Moonlight spilled across her face, illuminating her features. She was not as young as he had thought, for there were fine lines around her enormous dark eyes and across the paleness of her forehead, suggesting her age to be at least twenty-five years or more. Her cheekbones were high and pronounced, emphasizing the elegant fragility that seemed to surround her. Her finely shaped brows were drawn together and her mouth was set in a sober line as she studied him, her expression hovering somewhere between fear and something else, an emotion that looked almost like empathy. That was ridiculous, he told himself impatiently.
No woman of gentle breeding would sympathize with a common jewel thief--especially one who had just threatened to kill her.
"You dropped your necklace." She pointed to the sparkling pool of emerald and diamonds upon the carpet.
Harrison regarded her incredulously.
"It might be better to leave that one, and take a few smaller pieces instead," she suggested. "Lady Chadwick is sure to notice that her precious emerald necklace is missing the minute she goes to put her jewelry away tonight. If you take some of her less important pieces, she is unlikely to realize that they are gone right away, which means you will have an easier time selling them. Once their theft has been reported to the police and the newspapers, your sources might be reluctant to buy them."
He raised a bemused brow. "Are you always this helpful during a robbery?"
She colored slightly, embarrassed. "I just thought you might consider the advantages of selecting quality pieces which are more modest in appearance. The larger, more opulent stones are not always the most valuable--they can be flawed within."
"I realize that."
"Forgive me--of course you do." Her gaze became curious. "Youre the Dark Shadow, arent you?"
Harrison stalked over to the bureau and began to ransack Lady Chadwicks intimate apparel, searching for something with which he could tie up his quizzical young guest.
"When do you think you will have stolen enough?"
He paused to look at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"The newspapers have been filled with stories of your robberies for months now," she explained. "Im wondering when you think you will have stolen enough that you will be able to resign from a life of crime and apply your talents toward a more law-abiding profession. Ultimately, sir, Im sure you will find the rewards are much greater in leading a respectable, productive life."
Anger pulsed through him. In his experience, women who spewed sanctimonious advice about the path of righteousness had invariably lived sheltered lives. They didnt know the first goddamn thing about life beyond their own smug existence.
"It is something you should consider," she continued seriously. "If you are caught you will be sent to prison. I can assure you that is not a very pleasant place to be."
"Ill bear that in mind." He yanked a stocking from the drawer. "I regret having to do this, but Im going to have to tie you to that chair over there. Ill try not to make the bindings too tight--"
"Miss Kent?" There was a cursory rap upon the chamber door before it swung open.
"Help!" shrieked a horrified maid, appalled by the sight of Harrison in his dark clothes and mask stalking toward the girl with a twisted stocking in his hands. "Murder!" She tore down the corridor, screaming loud enough to wake the dead.
"Quick--go out the window!" exclaimed the girl. "Hurry!"
Swearing furiously, Harrison threw down the stocking and sprinted toward the window. Shouting and screaming split the night air, causing the coachmen and the curious on the previously sedate street to surge toward the house. He was relatively certain he could scrabble down that godforsaken tree in less than a minute without breaking any significant bones.
The distinct possibility that some earnest champion from the mob might shoot him down from the branches like a giant, hapless bird gave him pause.
"What are you waiting for--go!" The girl waved her arms at him as if she were shooing an errant child out the door.
Realizing he had little choice, he heaved one leg over the window sash and stretched his aching arms toward the tree.
A shot streaked through the darkness, clipping the branch where his fingers had brushed.
"I got him!" roared an excited voice from below. "Stop, thief!"
"Come back!" hissed the girl, grabbing him by his coat. "You cant go that way!"
"I realize that," Harrison agreed tautly.
"Youll have to leave from Lord Chadwicks chamber across the hall--hopefully there wont be anyone waiting for you on the other side of the house." She went to the doorway and peered into the corridor.
"Come out with your hands in the air!"
Harrison joined the girl at the doorway to see a scrawny young groomsman trudging warily up the stairs, balancing a battered old rifle unsteadily before him.
"I warn you," he bleated nervously, "Ive killed before an I aint afraid to do it again."
Harrison thought that unlikely, unless the lad was referring to killing rodents in the stable. At that moment, however, the prospect of being shot by a terrified youth with an ancient firearm struck him as highly undesirable--especially given that the boy might miss and hit the pretty young stranger who was so gallantly trying to assist him instead. With no hope of racing across the hallway to another chamber, his only chance for escape had disintegrated. How ironic, he reflected bitterly, to be caught and arrested for his crimes at this late stage.
He exhaled in disgust and raised his hands.
"He has a pistol!" screamed the girl suddenly at the groomsman. "Dont shoot or hell kill me!"
Harrison stared at her in disbelief. "What in the name of God are you doing?"
"We have no choice," she whispered fiercely. "Youve got to use me to get out of here!"
"Let her go!" The groomsman sounded as if he was going to be sick. "I told you, I aint afraid to shoot!"
"For Christs sake, Dick, dont threaten him!" barked a footman, venturing up the stairs behind him.
"Hes liable to murder the whole bloody lot of us!" added the butler, joining them.
"Fine then!" squealed the groomsman, thoroughly agitated. "Maybe youd like to have this instead!" He shoved his weapon at him.
"Dont give it to me, you idiot," snapped the butler, pushing it back. "I dont know how to fire it!"
"Silence, all of you!" Breathless and sweating profusely, Lord Chadwick struggled to affect an air of dignified authority as he reached the top of the staircase. "This is Lord Chadwick speaking." He paused to dab his brow with a linen handkerchief, letting the import of his presence sink in.
"Lord Chadwick, thank goodness youre here." The girl pretended to sound relieved. "Please tell everyone to clear the staircase and let us come down--he wont shoot anyone as long as no one tries to stop him--"
"Everyone in the house has exactly two minutes to go down to the kitchen and lock the door behind them," snapped Harrison. Since this girl had just added abduction to his litany of crimes, he supposed he might as well play some actual part in it.
"Go into the kitchen?" Lord Chadwick sounded outraged by the idea. "Look here, sir, I dont know who you are or what you mean by breaking into my home, but I assure you that I am not moving from this spot until you release my guest safely into my custody, do you hear? Miss Kents well-being is my responsibility, and I have no intention of abandoning her to your foul, despicable ways--"
"The first person I see upon leaving this room will be shot dead, Lord Chadwick," Harrison vowed darkly, "and that includes you. Now move before I--"
A deafening blast suddenly tore through the house, cutting short Harrisons threat.
"Run for your lives!" His bulging eyes nearly bursting from their tiny sockets, Lord Chadwick knocked his startled servants aside as he fought to beat them down the stairs. "Run before he murders all of us!!"
The entire household instantly exploded into a maelstrom of fleeing bodies, the distinctions of sex and class obliterated as servants and aristocrats crashed into one another in their desperate bid for safety.
"I told them to go into the kitchen," muttered Harrison, exasperated. "Now Ive got an even bigger crowd to contend with once I get outside."
"If you keep me in front of you, they wont shoot," the girl suggested.
"Im not taking you with me--that idiot groomsman is liable to kill you in his attempt to save you."
"I think he dropped his rifle." She glanced around the door and saw the clumsy firearm lying abandoned on the carpet. "There, you see? He must have thrown it down after it went off."
"Its Miss Kent, is it?" Harrisons tone was bland.
" Its Charlotte, actually. Miss Kent always sounds so terribly formal--"
"It may surprise you to learn, Miss Kent, that Im not in the habit of abducting helpless women and using them as a shield. I dont intend to start now." A dull throbbing had started to pound at the base of Harrisons skull. He was beginning to wish he had stayed home that night.
"Youre not actually abducting me--Im offering to help you," Charlotte pointed out. "Unless you are prepared to be arrested and spend the rest of your days in a prison cell, you have to let me help you get out of here."
Her eyes were large and earnest. It was impossible to determine their color in the soft veil of light spilling into the room, but it struck Harrison that they were unlike any he had ever seen. There was a singular strength emanating from the strange young woman standing before him, a unique resolve that was as bewildering as it was captivating.
"Are you carrying a pistol?" she demanded.
She frowned. "What about a dirk?"
Reluctantly, he nodded. "I have a dagger in my boot."
"A dagger is fine for threatening to cut my throat," she allowed matter-of-factly, "but if someone decides to try to wrestle it from your hand, were going to have a problem."
He didnt know what to make of her. Any normal gentle born woman would have been drowning in tears by now, begging him to release her unharmed. Instead this strange girl was scanning the room, apparently trying to come up with another weapon for him. He went to the window and glanced at the crowd still gathered on the street below. The hammering in his head was spreading now, sending deep tentacles of pain streaking across his forehead and into his temples.
"I know!" she exclaimed suddenly. "You can hold Lady Chadwicks hairbrush in your pocket and press it against my ribs as we go out, giving everyone the impression that you have a firearm."
She grabbed a heavy silver brush from the bureau and held it out to him. As if she actually believed he was a man of great daring, who was easily capable of outwitting an irate mob on the strength of a mere hairbrush. For some strange reason, he was loath to disillusion her. When was the last time a woman had looked at him with such pure, untainted trust in their eyes? he wondered bleakly. The pain in his head was getting worse now. He knew in a few minutes it would be excruciating, and then he would be unable to think at all. If there was any chance of escape, however small, this was his only moment to grasp it.
"And what do we do when we get outside?" he asked.
"Dont you have a carriage waiting for you?"
She frowned again, as if she found it incomprehensible that a thief could attempt a robbery so poorly prepared. "Then well have to take mine," she decided, moving toward the doorway.
"Are you hurt?"
She regarded him in confusion. "No--why?"
"Your leg--you seem to be having trouble walking."
"Its nothing," she assured him shortly. "Im fine."
Shoving Lady Chadwicks hairbrush into his coat, he wrapped his arm around her.
"I dont need your help to walk," she protested, trying to push him away. "Im quite capable of--"
"Im only doing as you suggested and pretending that I am using you as a shield."
"Oh." She stopped fighting him, but her body was rigid beneath his arm. It was obvious he had touched a raw nerve when he mentioned her leg.
"Once we are outside, if anyone decides to overtake me, I want you to get the hell away from me so you are out of harms way." Harrison regarded her seriously. "Is that clear?"
She shook her head. "No one is going to attack you as long as I stay in front--"
"Is that clear?"
"If I move away from you, someone might shoot you."
"Were not leaving, Miss Kent, until you say yes."
She sighed, reluctant. "Yes."
"Fine then. Lets go."
They moved awkwardly down the staircase together. By the time they had reached the main floor, his accomplice was breathing heavily, and despite her assurances that she was fine, Harrison knew her gait was painfully stiff. He had little time to reflect upon this, however, as they stepped up to the front door and into the view of the crowd awaiting them outside.
"Everyone move back," Harrison commanded, holding fast to his partner, "and send Miss Kents carriage over."
The terrified horde obediently took a few steps backward. The carriage, however, was not forthcoming.
"Send Miss Kents carriage over," repeated Harrison heatedly. "Now!"
"I heard ye the first time, ye soddin piece o scum," barked a furious voice. "An if ye so much as bend a wee hair on the lasss head while Im bringin it to ye, Ill be scrapin yer cowardly flesh from yer thievin bones and choppin it fine afore I grind ye into haggis!"
Harrison watched in astonishment as an ancient little man scuttled as fast as his skinny legs would carry him toward the line of carriages on the street. Displaying a remarkable agility for his advanced years, he hauled himself up into the drivers seat of one vehicle, snapped his reigns against the horses hindquarters and sent it lurching forward.
"Thats Oliver," Charlotte whispered to Harrison as the carriage barreled toward them. "He is very protective of me."
"Wonderful," drawled Harrison.
The carriage clattered to a stop directly in front of the entrance. Oliver cast Harrison a murderous look before regarding Charlotte with concern. "Are ye hurt, lass?"
"No, Oliver," Charlotte assured him gently. "Im fine."
"Yed best make sure she stays that way, ye spineless cur," he warned Harrison, "if yere thinkin yed like to keep yerself in one fine piece."
The idea of the wiry little Scotsman fighting him was preposterous. But Harrison recognized the old mans overwhelming fear for the girl pinned against him, and he knew better than to trifle with the elders emotions.
He had learned that strength born of fear and frustration could be far more dangerous than that of mere youth and muscle.
"I give you my word that Miss Kent will not come to any harm as long as you do exactly as I say," he told him.
Oliver snorted in disgust. "Canna trust the word of a rogue whod snatch a helpless young lass an push a pistol to her ribs," he spat contemptuously. "Ye thieves today have nae honor, an thats the sad truth o the matter. Now in my day, yed nae see me wavin a gun about--"
"Please, Oliver," interrupted Charlotte. "We have to go now."
Oliver glowered at Harrison. "All right then, ye wicked rascal, see if yeve enough manners in ye to help Miss Charlotte into the carriage, an well be off."
Relaxing his hold upon her slightly, Harrison reached up to open the carriage door.
"No!" cried Charlotte suddenly.
Harrison turned just in time to see a nattily attired gentleman clutching a pistol in front of the doorway from which he and Miss Kent had just emerged. One of Lord Chadwicks guests had not abandoned the house after all, he realized numbly. Instead he had hidden inside, waiting for the perfect moment to race out and shoot the infamous Dark Shadow in the back. The mans beefy hands were trembling visibly, his brow jeweled with perspiration as he leveled the pistol at Harrison.
Harrison wrapped himself around Charlotte, enveloping her in the hard shield of his body just as the weapon exploded. Fire ripped into him, burning a path through flesh and bone. Holding Charlotte fast, he jerked open the carriage door.
"Stop, thief!" roared his assailant. "Or Ill shoot again!"
Harrison whipped around, shoving Charlotte behind his back. He brandished Lady Chadwicks hairbrush menacingly through the fabric of his coat. "Throw down your weapon or Ill shoot your bloody--"
Another shot exploded through the darkness.
Harrison froze, knowing if he flinched the bullet would strike his protective young charge instead.
For a moment no one moved, anxiously waiting to see if the infamous Dark Shadow had been killed.
"Thomas!" screamed a woman suddenly. "Oh, dear God--Thomas!"
Confused, Harrison raised his gaze to the front doorway.
The fashionably attired guest lay sprawled upon the stairs, his arms and legs spread out upon the polished stone steps. At first it looked as if he had merely slipped and fallen. But something was leaking across the pale surface of the step beneath him and weeping onto the next in a grotesque river of crimson.
"Saint Columba--yeve killed him, ye filthy swine!" blazed Oliver, appalled.
Harrison stared in bewilderment at the limp, bleeding form of the man on the stairs, his hand still gripping Lady Chadwicks hairbrush.
"Get in the carriage!" hissed Charlotte. "Now!"
"Im nae takin him anywhere," Oliver raged, "the bastartin devil! He can bloody well hang--"
"He didnt do it!" Charlotte was trying desperately to get Harrison to move. "He couldnt have, Oliver--he doesnt have a pistol!"
Oliver scowled, confused. "He doesnt?"
"Please, you cant stay here!" Charlotte pulled hard on Harrisons arm, trying to get him into the carriage.
The night was filled with screams now. Men and women were running away, disappearing down laneways and into neighboring mansions, wildly trying to escape the murdering Dark Shadow. There was nothing he could do for the poor bastard bleeding on Lord Chadwicks steps, Harrison realized bleakly. Surrendering to Miss Kents pleas, he helped her into the carriage. Then he hauled himself up and banged the door shut as the vehicle flew forward.
Pain was everywhere now--blinding in ferocity. Its talons had sunk deep into his brain and eyes and ears, while the fire streaking through his shoulder was radiating to the tips of his fingers. His coat sleeve was sodden with blood, and his mouth was nauseatingly dry. He was alive, and so was the strange young woman who had interrupted his disastrous escapade.
Everything else was lost.