England, March, 1819
“Owning the most extensive pistol collection in the world won’t feed your tenants, Aubry.” Bored, Michael O’Toole leaned against a window frame and shifted his attention from Squire Aubry to a lamb gamboling in the field. “Prélat’s newest percussion pistol might kill a man at fifty paces, but it’s useless for shooting fowl.”
“A man has the right to protect himself in these uncertain times!” his portly host blustered as he passed his newly-acquired weapon to a more appreciative guest.
“If a man surrounds himself with friends instead of enemies, he would have no need to protect himself.” Idly, O’Toole juggled silver pieces between his fingers, assuming interest in coins and gamboling lambs.
A smart man would have heeded Michael’s warning rather than his aloofness.
Beyond the high hedge shielding the lambs stood tenant houses with leaking thatch and mildewed walls and children running barefoot wiping runny noses—while the owner of the houses stood in his elegant room, bragging of his expensive weaponry.
O’Toole curled his lip in open derision as one of the guests asked if he might test a fowling piece. Collectors did not use their collections. They merely acquired and admired them. A fourth coin materialized amid the ones spinning between his fingers. He listened to the whispers about him but gave no indication that he heard, or cared.
“The man’s got no title and little name to speak of. Why was he invited?” a particularly loud, querulous baronet asked.
“He’s the brother of a marquess,” the squire whispered back, “Or the adopted brother. I’m not quite clear. Effingham sent him in his place.”
“The Marquess of Effingham? The American? He’s little better than a savage himself,” the baronet replied with scorn.
Savages were more polite than to insult guests, O’Toole mused, unoffended. Which was more unacceptable—being untitled, adopted, or American?
As the squire led his elderly guest away, O’Toole shifted his attention to the weapon cabinet. Simple lock. A thief wouldn’t even need to break the glass.
He spun the coins so they sparkled in the sun while giving due consideration to the cabinet’s contents. Expensive equipment really should be put to good use.
He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. He’d promised his high-and-mighty noble brother he wouldn’t stir more mischief than necessary if he went in his place. But really, this was an opportunity begging to happen. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving man. The squire could regale his dinner guests with the mournful tale for years to come. He would be doing his otherwise boring host a favor.
Cheerfully, O’Toole pocketed the coins to examine the valuable weaponry. More canny companions would be suspicious of his sudden geniality since it obviously didn’t arise from the rum punch he wasn’t consuming.
A gale of feminine laughter drifted from the hallway following a knock and bustle at the front door. The racket of more trunks and visitors arriving resounded through the hall. The old fellow had managed quite a house party before the Season reached full swing back in the city.
Always attuned to his surroundings, Michael listened to the feminine chatter while admiring a particularly clever pistol. He loved watching women in their frilly gowns, festive colors, and soft curls, loved listening to their cheerfully chirping voices. He’d discovered, however, that they were a serious obstacle to a man of his nature. Women saw men and thought nest. He preferred flight.
“Such an exciting journey we had! Let us freshen up and we’ll tell you all about it. Would you believe….” The feminine voice trailed off as the speaker strolled out of range.
Michael froze and strained for another note of that once-familiar voice. It had been two long years— Maybe, if he eased closer to the door…
He daren’t. Returning the pistol to its place, he eyed the casement overlooking the garden. His host wouldn’t miss him. He had a well-known habit of never staying, one of many habits of which the lady disapproved, and rightfully so, did she know the half of them.
No longer able to hear her lilting voice, he returned to the heavy draperies of the open window.
He had plans for this household. It would be much safer if the gentle Lady Blanche didn’t know of his presence. The wretched woman had the face of an angel and the character to go with it. Angels frowned upon theft.
“Borrowing,” he called it, not theft. Thieves stole for ill-gotten gain. His intentions were as pure as the driven snow. Angels wouldn’t see it that way, and he had no particular desire to waste his days in gaol.