Stolen By the Rogue – Sasha Cottman

George Hawkins silently dropped from the top of the high brick wall and into the rear yard of the art gallery. His leather boots barely made a sound as they hit the ground. Crouching low, he glanced at the night sky and slyly grinned. The dark cover of a new moon was always welcome in his line of work. Tonight, was going to be good; he could feel it in his bones. His enthusiasm ebbed just a touch as he caught a glimpse of light shining through the window of an upper floor. It was well past nine o’clock; the place should have been empty. Come on. It’s late. Don’t you have a tasty supper waiting for you somewhere? There was nothing worse than an over-efficacious security guard. Such men were the bane of George’s career. How was a master thief supposed to get his hands on a lovely piece of lucre if some poorly paid night watchman was too keen to do his job properly? He shifted to a spot against the wall where it was a little darker and waited. Only a fool would risk taking a chance when an armed sentry was still on patrol. During one of his earlier reconnaissance missions, he had noticed that the guard in question had a pistol poking out from his jacket. Armed security at an art gallery—what was the world coming to? “About bloody time,” he muttered, when the light finally moved away.

He could just picture the man, lantern in hand, methodically checking every exhibition room as he made his way downstairs toward the front door and finally out into Oxford Street. Good chap. Scuttle off home to your wife. Not long now and George would have the place all to himself. Reaching into his coat pocket, he fingered the set of skeleton keys he kept on his person at all times. His father had given them to George as a jest on the occasion of his sixteenth birthday. How a man who sat in judgement of thieves every day at the Old Bailey could find such a thing amusing, George had never been able to fathom. But he had politely accepted the keys and put them to good use almost straight away. As he had done on many another night, George pushed the thought of his honest magistrate father to the back of his mind and refocused on the job at hand. Being the secret black sheep of the family came with its own price.

He couldn’t afford to suddenly grow a conscience when he was in the middle of a heist. George gave it a respectable ten minutes before deciding it was safe to push off the wall and make his way to the back entrance. Still, he wasn’t taking any chances, keeping to the shadowy edges of the yard and only coming out into the open when he was close to the rear entry. A quick dash and he was standing at the door, keys at the ready. And time for a professional pause. He took a deep breath, then listened. Craftsmen always measured twice before cutting, while master thieves checked to make certain that they were not going to be disturbed. Confident that he was indeed alone, George set a key to the lock. He smirked as the first one he chose fitted neatly into the hole and gave a satisfying click as it turned. Every time, you pick it just right.

George Hawkins, you are a clever lad. Pushing the door open, he froze as the squeak of a tired hinge disturbed the perfect silence of the night. He gritted his teeth. Bloody hell. If he were the owner of this building, he would be having a firm word with the person tasked to oil the locks and latches. His heart thumped hard in his chest. At this stage of the operation, any sort of surprise wasn’t a welcome one. He waited once more, carefully listening before stepping inside. George closed the door behind him, wincing as it creaked again. He stilled, allowing his hearing to become accustomed to the little noises that the art gallery made.

Buildings were living, breathing organisms with soft symphonies of their own. It took a special kind of mind to notice and understand them. In order to become a successful criminal, a man had to develop both his hearing and his patience. When he was certain that he was the only person in the building, George pressed ahead. One foot followed another as he made his way over to the wide oak staircase and began to ascend. Doing his best to ignore his racing heart, he slowly crept on. Second door on the left. Far wall. Three frames over to the right. No need for a light.

He knew the painting well enough in the daylight, having visited the public showing on several occasions during the proceeding weeks. By attending during the busiest periods, he had been able to conceal himself within the crowded ranks of gallery visitors. It had also given George the chance to watch the guards while remaining out of sight of their prying eyes. After entering the exhibition space, he crossed the floor then came to a halt in front of the third mounted painting. He stared at it for a time, then softly sighed. Titian’s Venus with a Mirror never failed to make him happy. It was a masterful representation of the goddess, naked while studying herself in a mirror. Titian had reached the pinnacle of his career with the use of rich colors and subject. When he caught a glimpse of Venus’s breasts in the dull light, George licked his lips. Now there was a man who appreciated the naked female form.

And if the masterful work of the artist’s brush wasn’t enough, the fact that the painting was worth a small fortune was enough of a reason to make a professional thief smile. If George could steal it, and find a willing buyer, all his money problems would be over. He leaned in close. Forty-nine inches by forty-one. The perfect size for a one-man mission. With one hand resting on the top of the frame, the other supporting its weight, he lifted the painting up and away from its mount before setting it gently onto the floor. BANG! He whirled round. Someone had slammed the front door. Heavy footsteps echoed on the stairs. “Bloody ridiculous.

Fancy forgetting your dinner tin. She’ll have my guts for garters if I come home without it,” a low voice chastised. “Bugger,” George muttered. The potbellied guard had returned. If George remained where he was, the man would pass by the door on the way to the storeroom. He would surely see a night thief, priceless painting at his feet, and all hell would break loose. Quickly abandoning the Titian, George made for the opposite wall, praying that if the guard did happen to step into the room, he may by some miracle be able to slip out behind the man and leave unnoticed. The footsteps came closer. George’s heart beat hard and fast in his chest. All his worst nightmares were fast becoming reality.

A large bead of sweat trickled down his spine. Back pressed hard against the wall, he inched his way closer to the door, ready to bolt the second the watchman entered the room. The footsteps stopped a mere yard or so away out in the hall. “What the devil is going on?” said the man. Bloody. Bloody. Bollocks. George waited until his adversary had made it all the way into the room and was standing, hands on rounded hips, looking down at the painting before finally making his move. He took three deft steps to his left and bolted for the door. “Hey! Stop, thief!” He leapt down the staircase, dropping with a hard thud onto the first main landing before scurrying for the next set of risers.

Footsteps thudded close behind. A bullet pinged over his head and into the mahogany wood of the wall ahead of him. George didn’t stop to count his blessings. Instead, he focused his gaze and prayers solely on the front door. “Sweet Lord let it be unlocked,” he muttered. If the guard had secured the door behind him when he returned, George was going to be in serious trouble. Fighting his way out of the gallery would be his only option. The sound of the man’s footsteps grew louder as he closed the distance between them. “Come back here, you villain. I’ll skin you alive!” The angry guard was close on his heels when George reached for the handle.

He almost wept for joy when it turned, and the door swung open. A gust of cold night air smacked him in the face, but he paid it no mind. Only escape mattered. He raced out into the street, ignoring the foul curses and loud shouts coming from behind him. No, he wasn’t going to stop or come back, thank you very much. With legs pumping and arms swinging, he ran at full stretch along Oxford Street, darting out into the road when other late-night strollers impeded his progress. At Argyle Street, he made a sharp right turn. The path ahead was clear of pedestrians. Digging deep into what was left of his energy reserves, George increased his pace. He ran straight past the front door of his home and continued on at breakneck speed, only slowing to take the corner into Great Marlborough Street.

After ducking out of sight into the doorway of a shop, he finally came to a skittering halt. As he bent, hands on knees, and tried to catch his breath, he kept his gaze fixed firmly on the street. To his bone-deep relief, there was no sign of his pursuer. George panted and wheezed as he sucked in one great lungful of air after the other. The adrenaline coursing through his body made him nauseous. If he hadn’t been in the middle of a London street, he would have given in to temptation and cast up his accounts. Several minutes passed before his heart rate finally returned to normal. His days of being a champion athlete at school and the resultant muscle memory had saved him tonight, but it had been a near-run thing. His fitness wasn’t anywhere near as good as it had once been. Thank God that guard couldn’t fire a pistol to save himself, let alone stop an art thief.

In all his years of thieving and smuggling, he had never come this close to being caught. Or shot. I must have missed something or not waited long enough. Heavens, am I losing my touch? After a quick wipe of his face with a handkerchief, George straightened his attire and made ready to go home. There was little point in wasting any more time standing out in the street. All his careful planning and preparation had come to naught. The Titian would never be his. You escaped with your life. Be grateful for that large blessing. He checked at the corner of Argyle Street and found it was clear.

The overweight and unfit guard hadn’t been able to keep up with him. That was too bloody close for anyone’s liking. What if he had been a better shot? I might well be dead. He took in a deep, calming breath and straightened his shoulders. By the time George Hawkins reached his home at number 45 Argyle Street, his pace had dropped to that of a leisurely saunter. Only a fool would come tearing in the front door of his father’s house as if the hounds of hell were hot on his tail. He nodded at the footman who answered the door, giving him a friendly grin as he stepped inside. But George’s self-assured smile froze on his lips when his gaze settled on the crowd of people who were gathered in the foyer and main ballroom of the Hawkins family home. Everywhere he looked there was a senior member of the London judiciary. Magistrates, barristers, and even a smattering of King’s Counsels stood shoulder to shoulder, drinking and laughing.

Hell, and the devil. I forgot the legal soiree was on tonight. The sick, heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach returned. If things had not gone his way just a few minutes earlier, he may well have found himself being hauled up in front of one of his father’s friends and made to face judgement. And I would have been found guilty. His mother appeared from out of the crowd. She took one look at him, frowned, and hurried to his side. “George, my sweet boy, you don’t look at all well. Are you coming down with something?” “No, I just . ” Before he could stop her, Mrs.

Hawkins had placed a hand on George’s brow. She shook her head and tutted. “Definitely warm and a little sweaty. Maybe you should head upstairs to bed. An early night might be in order. Just remember I am having Lady Dodd and her daughter, Petunia, over tomorrow afternoon, and you did promise to stop by and give them your regards.” Not another matchmaking attempt, Mama. Please. I don’t need you to find me a wife. “Perhaps I should make it an early night.

Though if I am still not right in the morning, you may have to give Lady Dodd my sincere apologies,” he replied. Anything he did to avoid having to take tea and cake with yet another young miss on his mother’s ever-growing list of potential brides was worth it. A good son shouldn’t lie to his mother about being ill, but George had told so many untruths to his parents over the years that they rolled off his tongue without a second thought. I really am the worst of the family. He was about to make good on his promise to head upstairs when the Honorable Judge Hawkins hailed him from the doorway of the ballroom. “Ah! George, I was wondering if you were going to make it home in time for my little gathering. Good to see you, son.” He hurried over. Mrs. Hawkins turned to her husband.

“I think George is unwell. I suggested he should turn in.” The look of disappointment on his father’s face put a swift end to George’s plans for a speedy exit. He hadn’t done the expected thing and followed his father and brother into the legal fraternity. And while Judge Hawkins made obvious attempts to hide his feelings, it was clear to George that his sire still hadn’t come to terms with his youngest son’s rejection of the family calling. “I am certain I could manage one drink,” replied George. His father’s demeanor changed in an instant. “Excellent. Grab a glass and come and say a quick hello to the Lord High Chancellor. Lord Eldon was just about to tell us the story of a wicked jewel thief they executed at Newgate Prison this morning.

I am sure you will find it fascinating.” If caught, I would have been sentenced. And I would have been hung. A reluctant George took a brandy from a footman and followed his father into the ballroom. He could just imagine how it would feel to be a condemned man taking his final steps on the way to the scaffold. That could’ve been me. “Lord Eldon, you remember my son George, don’t you?” said his father. George stirred from his horrid imaginings of death and bowed low. “My lord.” As he righted himself, his gaze met that of the man who, aside from the King, was the most powerful legal authority in all of England—a man who one day could very well hold George’s fate in his hands.

It wouldn’t matter if he was the son of a judge; he would not be shown any mercy. He swallowed deeply as grey, all-seeing eyes stared back at him. And in that moment, George Hawkins made a fateful decision. I have to find another way to make money or I am destined to end up swinging by my neck at the end of a rope. I must give up this life of villainy. But how?

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