Sarah Pevensey had hoped her arranged marriage to St. John Sutliffe, Viscount Fairfax, could become something more. But almost before it began, it ended in a scandal that shocked London society. Accused of being a jewel thief, Sarah fled to a small fishing village to rebuild her life.
The last time St. John saw his new wife, she was nestled in the lap of a soldier, disheveled, and no longer in possession of his family's heirloom sapphire necklace. Now, three years later, he has located Sarah and is determined she pay for her crimes. But the woman he finds is far from what he expected. Humble and hardworking, Sarah has nothing to hide from her husband-or so it appears. Yet as he attempts to woo her to uncover her secrets, St. John soon realizes that if he's not careful, she'll steal his heart...
"An impressive debut, with evocative prose and richly drawn characters. To Kiss a Thief will leave you breathless, and eagerly wanting more." -New York Times bestselling author Jennifer McQuiston
"An achingly romantic tale of a second chance at love. Beautifully written, richly atmospheric, deeply felt, and so deftly researched-I felt utterly absorbed into the world of late Georgian England. I'm tremendously excited to discover such an elegant new voice in historical romance!" -New York Times bestselling author Meredith Duran
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
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To Kiss a Thief
By Susanna Craig
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Susan Kroeg
All rights reserved.
Three years later
"But why did you leave, Fairfax? I still cannot fathom it!"
Because I was afraid.
God knew it was the truth, although he was not a man who liked to admit feeling fear — who liked to admit feeling anything. In any case, it was not an answer to satisfy his stepmother, who had asked some version of the same question a dozen times since his return.
"Because dueling is illegal," St. John offered instead, not for the first time.
She waved an impatient hand. "Oh, pish posh. One hears of duels being fought forever."
He glanced out the window of his stepmother's sitting room at the pallid September sky and the nearly empty London street below. "There was also the small matter of believing I might have killed a man. And the death of a military officer is no insignificant thing."
"But he didn't die," she protested.
"Three witnesses swore to me that Brice would be gone in a matter of days," he said. "I could only act on the information I had in front of me in the moment. This house had been overrun by the boys from Bow Street, and I had a man's blood on my hands. I felt it would be best if I left for a time."
It had seemed like bravery to call out a man of considerably greater experience and skill. It was what dishonored husbands did. But as he had faced Brice across a misty field in the uncertain light before dawn, St. John's sword had trembled in his hand.
"I did not take you for the jealous type, Fairfax."
St. John had cultivated a pose of studied indifference to the world for so long, he had forgotten that something might still lie beneath it. But he could not deny the truth of Brice's taunt. A duel was not the act of an indifferent man.
So when the duel was over, he had left, not out of fear of the law or of Brice, but fear of himself, of the strength of his reaction.
And he had stayed away until he was sure he felt nothing for his wife.
Nothing at all.
Not even regret at the discovery he need never have left.
"Well, even so," his stepmother clucked, "I certainly cannot fathom why you ran off to the West Indies, of all places."
"I had little choice in the matter. Ganett drove me to the docks. There was a packet in port bound for Antigua." The ship's destination had sounded interesting, exotic. The sort of place that offered just the escape he sought. It had been all of those things.
And none of them.
"I was ... fortunate to secure a place," he concluded.
"But to stay away so long —?" She shook her head and patted the settee in invitation. After almost twenty years, his once-obnoxious behavior toward her had settled into a sort of cool politeness, but she seemed determined even now to pretend there was real affection between them. Reluctantly, St. John left his post at the window to sit beside her.
As she studied his face in the afternoon light, she raised one hand to trace her fingers down his left cheek. "I do not like to see a gentleman so brown," she chided. What bothered her most, he knew, was the curling scar left by Brice's blade, silvery-white against his tanned skin. "Although the color in your face sets off your eyes rather handsomely. Miss Harrington remarked upon it to me after dinner yesterday."
St. John covered his stepmother's hand with his own and returned hers to her lap. "She is most kind."
Her desire for him to court Eliza Harrington was almost a palpable thing. And he had to admit, it had been something of a shock to find Eliza still unwed after all these years. But he was the very last man to do anything about it. She was beautiful, yes, but an old friend, nothing more. Besides, it was impossible to imagine his own thoughts straying toward marriage again. Especially after —
"Is there nothing more you can tell me about Sarah's death?"
His stepmother stiffened. "Honestly, Fairfax. It's hardly a fit subject for a lady to discuss. Everything was a blur — Sarah disappeared, you went missing. Lord Ganett refused to reveal where you'd gone. Then the constable came to the door and announced that a woman's body had been pulled from the Thames. You'll have to speak to your father if you want the gruesome details — he identified her. Though after five days, one imagines it was difficult to be certain."
Despite her protests, she told the story with a certain relish.
Had he been in town when Sarah drowned, he would have been called upon to do the grim task his father had performed. Now, after so much time, he could no longer call her face to mind. He remembered mousy brown hair, gray eyes, and an upturned nose. But try as he might, the collection of features would not be formed into a whole.
Perhaps that was for the best. He had seen firsthand what heat and water could do to the human body. Although he had no intention of engaging the man in conversation about either the matter or the manner of his wife's death, when he imagined the scene with which his father had been confronted, he shuddered.
"Don't think on it." His stepmother patted his hand consolingly. "What matters is that you're free now — free to bestow your heart where you wish."
His heart? His stepmother of all people should have known he had no heart to give.
Love was for the weak and the foolish. He had learned that long ago. Even had he been prone to such weakness, such foolishness, what had his heart to do with his marriage? How could he allow himself to fall in love with the wife his father had all but forced upon him? Sarah Pevensey had been too meek by half, undeniably plain, utterly passionless.
In their two weeks of married life he had been tempted at times to believe he might have misjudged her. And in the end, she had proved him right. The woman he had thought he'd known had lacked the nerve to do what his wife had done. Brice had seen something in her, known something of her that he, her husband, had quite overlooked.
At the time, the revelation of her true nature had been oddly liberating. Her behavior on the night of the nuptial ball had confirmed both his father's poor choice and his own belief that love was a risk not worth taking. It had provided the perfect excuse for St. John to keep himself at arm's length from his wife. Now, Sarah was gone and, as his stepmother said, he was free. Free to do as he pleased.
He jerked to his feet and began to pace.
Why didn't he feel free?
"Oh, bother." His stepmother was rummaging through her lap desk. "Would you be a dear and fetch me some paper? I'll send 'round a note to Eliza and invite her to tea."
It seemed an unlikely bond had formed between the two women in his absence. As Eliza apparently came for tea every day, he very much doubted she required an invitation. But he strode across the room to his stepmother's escritoire, if only to put some distance between them.
"Middle drawer," she called after him.
The morning's post was strewn across the desktop. A stack of bills caught his eye: winter ball gowns, feminine fripperies, a new chaise for a sitting room where no one ever sat. None of it was surprising. Money had always run through his stepmother's fingers like water.
What rankled now was the knowledge that those were the sorts of uses to which Sarah's dowry was being put.
As he had married only to secure the family estate, St. John had willingly turned over the money to that purpose. The mistake had been ceding the management of it to his father in his absence. He shuddered to think what might have been made of those thirty thousand pounds in the hands of a man with a head for business — someone decidedly unlike his father, who had allowed his wife to squander a fortune and then informed his son and heir it was his duty to marry the daughter of a cit to save his family from drowning in their debts.
His hand curled around the carved rail of the escritoire's delicate chair until he heard something crack. His time under the Caribbean sun ought to have burned off some of his anger toward the man, but clearly live embers still crackled in the darker recesses of his soul.
"Fairfax, dear, I'm waiting."
"Coming, Mama," he said, pushing the address past a clenched jaw — although to be fair, she had never been the one to insist upon it. Did his father regret even some of the choices he had made?
He fingered the teardrop-shaped pull and tugged gently, but the drawer gave at best half an inch. More force made little headway. He jiggled the drawer from side to side, hoping to dislodge whatever obstructed its movement. After three tries, a small strip of crumpled paper fluttered to the floor at the back of the desk. He knelt to snatch it up, then opened the drawer, which slid easily now, and pulled out several sheets of writing paper to take to his stepmother.
"I'd forgotten all about that sticky drawer. Did you discover the problem?" she asked, reaching up for the foolscap he had brought.
"Just this," he replied, smoothing the torn edge of the slip of paper between his thumb and forefinger.
Midsumr. £500 — S.
His stepmother's copperplate made the cryptic message even harder to decipher. Five hundred pounds was an enormous sum for a lady to spend, even one such as her, and the reference to the quarter day made it seem as if it might be some recurring expense. Rent? But for what? Or whom?
St. John read the note through twice more before handing it to his stepmother. "A record of payment, I'd say. Who, or what, is 'S.'?"
Coloring, she folded the paper and tucked it into her lap desk. "No one with whom you need concern yourself now, dear."
S. S.? "Not —!"
Although he had not finished the thought aloud, she looked away and bit her lip.
He tried to persuade himself that Sarah's name had leapt to mind because they had been speaking of her. But the guilty look on his stepmother's face told another story. What was it she had said about the body Father had identified? It was difficult to be certain.
St. John had always thought his stepmother woefully inept at telling fibs and keeping secrets.
Grasping her by the shoulders, he lifted her from the settee, conscious that his fingers bit into her flesh, yet unable to restrain himself. The lap desk clattered to the floor, and in the awful silence that followed, he could hear the steady drip of ink trickling onto the carpet.
"My God. Where is she?"
* * *
Sarah stepped to the doorway of the vicarage to see that the afternoon's intermittent downpours had shifted to a steady drizzle, spattering against the boldly colored autumn leaves.
"Are you sure you won't borrow an umbrella, Mrs. Fairfax?" the vicar's wife asked, coming up beside her.
"No need, Mrs. Norris," Sarah answered with a laugh, tying the strings of her bonnet. "The houses down-along sit too close together to let a drop of rain pass."
With a wave she set off on the footpath that ran from the old Norman church and Haverty Court to the vicarage, and from the vicarage to the lane of wattle-and-daub cottages that was Haverhythe. In just a few steps she was at the top of the street, looking down the narrow, winding roadway to the sea.
She picked her way over cobblestones slick with rain, paused in a doorway halfway down the steeply pitched street to wait out a heavier shower, and caught a glimpse of the bay stretched out below.
Had Lady Estley known when she chose this place that Sarah would arise every morning to a view of the Bristol Channel? The sorrow Sarah had first felt at the sight had eventually been replaced by something like comfort: comfort in the knowledge that these same waves lapped the docks where Papa's warehouses stood, that this same sea breeze wound its way through Bristol streets to stir the draperies in Mama's sitting room.
Sarah was pulled from her bittersweet reverie by the sensation of something brushing against her ankles. She glanced down to see an orange tabby with four white socks looking up expectantly.
Sarah bent to stroke her. "Good evening, Meg!"
The cat chirped a greeting then ambled off down the street, her tail curled in a question mark and her bulging belly swaying from side to side.
"See something that tempts your sweet tooth, Mrs. F.?" The baker came to the door of his shop, his head dusted with white where he had run a floury hand over his balding pate.
"Oh, Mr. Beals, I shouldn't. I'm late for tea as it is, and Mrs. Potts will have my head." Sarah nevertheless cast a longing glance at the wares displayed in the shop window. "Do you suppose, perhaps, a currant cake would appease her?"
Mr. Beals's face split into a grin beneath his bushy moustache, and he stepped back into his shop to fetch an already-wrapped parcel.
Another few steps brought Sarah to the end of the lane. She ducked under a low archway and skipped up the stairs to the kitchen door of Primrose Cottage.
"There now," Mrs. Potts clucked as she lifted the sodden bonnet from Sarah's head. "And how was the lesson?"
"Oh, fine. Susan Kittery shows all the signs of musical giftedness that an eight-year-old girl who would rather be playing cricket with her brothers usually does, and Mrs. Norris is a saint for allowing us the use of her pianoforte," Sarah answered, setting the cake on the table and turning to warm her hands at the fire. "She sits and sews just as if she weren't being tortured. I suspect she stuffs her ears with wax before we arrive."
Mrs. Potts knelt to brush the damp from Sarah's hem. "I see you met Bright Meg along the way," she said, plucking a tuft of orange fur from Sarah's dark skirts.
"Oh, yes. If those kittens don't come soon, she'll not be able to squeeze her way down the street for that belly."
"Mr. Beals promised one to Clarissa, you know." Mrs. Potts sounded disapproving.
Sarah smiled. "Yes. I expect he thought she'd forget. Little does he know."
Mrs. Potts gave a chuckle and resumed fussing over Sarah's dress. "I don't know why you don't leave off wearing these widow's weeds, mum. It's been more'n three years, and this black will show the dirt like anything."
"A new wardrobe would be an entirely frivolous expense," Sarah chided.
"What about that trunk o' things molderin' away upstairs, then?"
Sarah flicked her skirts away from Mrs. Potts's fingertips and pretended not to have heard her. "Black suits me. I have it on the best authority."
"Oh? How's that, then?"
"The twinkle in Mr. Beals's eye whenever I step into his shop," Sarah teased, breaking off a corner of the currant cake and popping it into her mouth.
Mrs. Potts shook her head. "Beggin' your pardon, mum, but I think it's your tuppence he sees comin', afore the dress."
"Be that as it may, Mrs. Potts, he's going to sell those divine tea cakes of his at the bazaar next week and he's generously agreed to donate all his profits to the Fishermen's Relief."
"Humph," was Mrs. Potts's only reply as she turned to lift the boiling kettle, but Sarah knew the woman was reluctantly impressed. "Oh, Lawks!" The kettle clattered back onto the hob. "I forgot! There's a gentleman to see you, mum."
Sarah smoothed a distracted hand over the damp hair at her brow. "A gentleman? Did he have a card? Or give his name?"
"No, mum." Having been born in Haverhythe, Martha Potts had little experience with strangers. She had obviously not thought to ask the man's name, but equally bothersome was his failure to supply it. "He's in the parlor."
Sarah smiled inwardly at Mrs. Potts's insistence on such a grandiose label for the small cottage's plain sitting room, but curiosity quickly redirected her thoughts. The only strangers who called at Primrose Cottage were those seeking some kind of assistance. Her own means, albeit meager, were still beyond many in the little fishing village. But if Mrs. Potts described him as a gentleman, he was unlikely to be a vagrant begging alms or an itinerant laborer looking for work. "I'll see what he wants," she said. Three steps took her down the narrow passageway that ran beside the staircase. She stopped in the doorway to the parlor to observe her visitor.
Excerpted from To Kiss a Thief by Susanna Craig. Copyright © 2016 Susan Kroeg. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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