Tempting the Scoundrel – Katrina Kendrick

Tonight’s theft was Nicholas Thorne’s last. There were rumors that The Earl of Kent’s mistress had a vast jewelry collection that rivaled the queen. If those whispers were even the slightest bit true, Thorne would have quite the bounty by morning. He’d stolen many jewels, of course—necklaces, bracelets, rings, ear-bobs, even hair combs. Whatever they wore, he lifted with little difficulty at all. As effortless as breathing. It only took patience. And Thorne was a patient man. He had cased the townhouse for over a month—but he needn’t have taken so long. Few people came and went: the earl himself, his mistress, and her servants. Not a single guard or intimidating footman in sight. The place was effectively unprotected. Thorne could not imagine such comfort. He’d seen the size of the rock Mrs. Cecilia Dunn wore to the theater a fortnight ago.

There was a certain arrogance in wearing a fortune around one’s throat, secure in the knowledge that its absence would mean nothing. Her life would not change. In Thorne’s case, it meant freedom. Influence. Power. He was taking it one day at a time. One jewel at a time. Fuck the rich wasn’t his life’s motto; it meant the difference between living and dying in the streets these aristos shunned and regarded with disgust. The Old Nichol wasn’t kind, but it was home. With his stolen fortune, Thorne was going to seize control of the East End from the man who’d made him into a criminal.

But first, the jewels. He slipped through the garden, rounding to the servants’ entrance. The house was quiet, every light extinguished. The servants would be long abed by now. Thorne had memorized their schedules, right down to when the scullery maid laid her weary head down to rest. He wouldn’t risk being thrown in the gaol on his last night of thieving. “Last time,” he murmured to himself, a reassurance. Last time. Last. Time.

He reached into his pocket for the small bundle that held his tools and picked the lock. It came apart with such ease that he scowled. Thorne had known for a long time that money and comfort created a false sense of security. This woman’s neighbors were successful actresses, other mistresses, businessmen, writers, artists. They had no reason to secure their homes past a flimsy lock. Thorne might have reflected on the unfairness of it once. When he was young, his low birth often occupied his thoughts. He’d lie in the cold, dark cellar with the rest of Whelan’s lads, and decided this was God’s punishment. Perhaps for the people he’d stolen from. Or for the men Whelan had forced him to kill in exchange for a roof, some food, and protection in the streets.

Later he’d go to bed at night and decide the answer was simpler: God didn’t give fuck about him. He’d have to change his own fate. Last. Bloody. Time. He slipped through the kitchens and headed up the stairs, his steps slow and quiet. Mrs. Dunn would not return anytime soon. Earlier in the evening it took three maids to prepare her for a gathering that would likely last until the sun peeked through the morning fog. As for the Earl of Kent: he was scarce on Sundays.

Thorne had hours; all he needed was minutes. The bedchamber was redolent with the scent of perfume, something floral that made his nose itch. He picked his way through the various drawers that constituted the vanity. The creams alone were worth enough to buy a starving family food for a whole year. That didn’t even get into the cost of this woman’s clothes and baubles. The lowest silver spoon could pay what Thorne owed Whelan for protection this month. Ahh. There we are. At the back of the vanity Thorne spied a hidden compartment with a tiny lock. He almost almost laughed at the absurdity of it.

This might keep the servants from slipping a diamond necklace into their pockets, but it wouldn’t stop even the greenest of thieves. He had the mechanism picked within seconds. The sight inside made Thorne draw a breath. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds—thrown in carelessly. As if they were worth nothing more than a secondhand pair of boots. Mrs. Dunn was about to regret her negligence. The whole bloody collection would be enough to pay his debts to Whelan— hell, the debts of every lad who owed Whelan blunt. More, besides. This came with power.

An end to thieving. How could he turn down the opportunity? Thorne wasn’t a moral man; desperate ones couldn’t afford morality. Not when he answered to a man who demanded payment for services rendered. Not when those services included protection at a steep cost. No, he had little time for guilt. That was for those with choices. Thorne stuffed the jewelry into his bag. Every diamond necklace, every ear bob, every sapphire encrusted hair comb, every bracelet. Even fenced at a fraction of its worth, this was more money than he’d ever seen in his good for nothing life. Wait.

Out of the corner of his eye, the shadows shifted. Thorne paused and slowly turned his head. George Grey, The Earl of Kent, sat in the shadowed recesses of the room. He sipped from a glass of port and watched as his mistress’s jewelry disappeared into the cloth bag of a thief. Thorne lunged for the door, but the earl’s voice rang out behind him. “I’ve got the authorities waiting outside for my command, so you might as well stay a while.” Thorne clenched his jaw, not turning to look at the man. “How did you know I’d come?” “You’ve stolen from friends of mine. So I had my mistress wear something expensive enough to tempt you.” “Tell the coppers, then,” Thorne said, wheeling around.

“Have me arrested.” The other man’s eyes glittered in the darkness. “And if I had them sent away? Told them you never showed?” Thorne’s laugh was dry. This man wasn’t about to let Thorne walk away with a sack full of his woman’s jewels out of charity. No, this toff wanted something. They always wanted something. “What’s your favor?” Thorne asked. “Addington’s widow mentioned that when you stole her diamonds, she thought you were a nobleman. But you’re Irish?” “Yes,” Thorne said, enunciating the word slowly using the earl’s posh fucking accent. “And I can mimic any accent I’d like, even yours.

” The earl laughed. “You’re perfect.” Thorne had a decent understanding of toffs, but the vicious delight in Kent’s expression surprised him. “For what?” “What if I let you keep those jewels, and more besides?” Thorne narrowed his eyes. “I’ve a mate who’ll let you stick your cock in ‘im for a hell of a lot less than that.” “For god’s sake, man, I’m not asking about buggery. This is a business proposal.” “Don’t make deals with toffs,” Thorne said, reaching for the door. “Not even for one-hundred thousand pounds?” Thorne froze, his hand on the door knob. His heart stuttered in his chest.

Surely he’d heard wrong. But no, that devil in the darkness smiled and repeated the impossible sum. “That’s right. One-hundred thousand pounds. I’ll even include the jewelry. All you have to do is pretend to be a nobleman.” Experience had taught Thorne to be suspicious of all aristos. They were a selfish lot— willing to throw the nearest child under a carriage wheel if it benefited them. Their charity did not come without a price, especially not for men like Thorne. But for that amount of blunt, he’d consider the game.

“For how long?” The earl lifted a shoulder and sipped his port. “However long it takes. Three months, let’s say.” Thorne made an amused noise. “I beg your pardon,” he said in his perfect imitation of the earl’s accent. “I may sound like a lord, but the facade is not meant to last longer than the length of time it takes to abscond with a woman’s jewels.” At the earl’s stunned silence, Thorne added, “You like that, aye? I ain’t from St. James’s. You lot have rules I haven’t been taught.” “Rules?” Kent tilted his head.

“Etiquette, you mean?” “Sure, start there.” Kent didn’t seem concerned. “You’ll have lessons. I recently obtained the estate bordering mine in a card game. You’ll stay at the house, play the role of some impoverished nobody who recently came into a title due to the death of a distant relation. Any holes in your performance will be attributed to your low birth. It need only last long enough to make her like you.” This toff was mad, he was. Cracked in the head. A Bedlamite with a fancy title and too much money.

“Who are we speaking of?” The earl’s expression hardened. “My wife’s bastard. You’re going to pretend to be a nobleman, seduce her, and marry her.” This was too much. Thorne rubbed his forehead with the back of a hand. “Not interested. Best of luck with”— he gestured vaguely—“all that.” All that shite. Thorne had wrenched open the door when the earl spoke again. “It’s this or the gaol.

And the prison cell doesn’t come with one-hundred thousand pounds and a sack full of jewels.” He shut the door with a snick. One-hundred thousand pounds. One-hundred thousand pounds. Christ. Thorne was beginning to think he’d imagined that part. “Why not marry her off to some aristo with a gamblin’ problem? One or two of ‘em are bound to be desperate enough to marry a lass born on the wrong side of the blanket.” Kent’s lip curled. “My wife made certain I believed the child to be mine before she died. I only recently discovered the deception in one of her diaries.

” Brilliant. Thorne came for jewels and now he had to stay for the family melodrama. “You’re tellin’ me your wife’s daughter doesn’t know about any of this?” “She’ll comprehend after I see her married off to a baseborn like she deserves. That you’re an Irishman and a criminal only adds insult to injury.” Thorne’s expression hardened. Baseborn. Irishman. Criminal. Aye, that’d put him lower than shit in the eyes of an aristocrat. He almost felt sorry for the lass; as far as she knew, she was legitimate—and the man she thought was her father planned to marry her off to a confidence artist.

Toffs were a callous lot. “I suppose she’ll be grateful you’re settling one-hundred thousand pounds on a bastard, rather than just tossing her into the street.” Kent didn’t indicate he’d heard Thorne’s sarcasm. “I wouldn’t settle a farthing on the chit, but my wife ensured the money was put in a trust. If Alexandra doesn’t marry in the next three years, the fortune is hers by law. I won’t let that happen. Do you understand?” Thorne lifted a shoulder. “Don’t care.” He wasn’t interested. Not about anything other than the money and how to get it.

“Mm.” Kent sipped his port. “In any case, the girl is staying in Hampshire at present. I’ll throw in an extra thousand pounds if you can convince her to elope with you by Michaelmas.” Good god. Thorne couldn’t help but rear back in disgust. “That desperate to be rid of her?” Kent’s expression turned cold. “My wife made me look like a fucking fool. Since she’s not alive, I’ll do the same to her daughter. Do we have a deal, or not?” Thorne let out a breath.

“For one-hundred thousand pounds, I don’t particularly care if she looks like a fool. But I’ll take some blunt upfront for takin’ her off your hands.” Kent’s smile was slow. “I would expect nothing less of a criminal.”

.

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