Love and Larceny, Book 5 in the Lady Emily Capers
May 2, 2016
Even an Amazon can fall hard. In 1815 England, Daphne Courdebas is known for her daring. So when her former teacher now countess Lady Brentfield asks her, her sister Ariadne, and their friends Lady Emily Southwell and Priscilla Tate to return to Brentfield Manor to investigate things that go bump in the night, Daphne is ready. But once again, things are not as they seem at Brentfield, especially when it comes to Daphne's new friend, Wynn Fairfax. Wynn is determined to prove himself to the lovely Amazon. What's a lady known for saving the day to do when she finds her own heart in jeopardy?
"I loved this series but Wynn really grabs my heart. After an injury at Eton, he is left with a limp. The heroes with disabilities always get me." Just Judy's Jumbles, top reviewer
Daphne Courdebas was known throughout London as an Amazon. She rode better than most of the gentlemen, could drive four-in-hand, and had once dangled off a ledge in a ball gown to protect a friend from a murderous jewel thief. The fellows found her fascinating. The ladies were either awed or aghast at her exploits. She could have given them an easy explanation for her bravado. She'd simply learned that her brain worked better when she was moving.
That was why she took Hortensia out earlier than usual that day. The black-coated mare flew along Rotten Row, her hooves kicking up the golden sand on the track, as the trees of Hyde Park flashed past. Daphne's thoughts flew nearly as fast. What was she to do about Miss Alexander's request?
No, no, not Miss Alexander. She must remember her former art teacher's new name and position. Hannah Alexander was now Lady Brentfield. And she had begged Daphne and her sister, Ariadne, and their friends Priscilla Tate and Lady Emily Southwell to come to her aid.
"Even though David has had all the secret passages closed off," she'd written, "I know strangers are frequenting the manor. Art is once more missing, and the servants report hearing noises in the night. It is a mystery that must be solved."
Of course, Emily had agreed. Emily lived to solve mysteries, and she was very good at it. Ariadne said it was because she saw the details of any scene with her painter's eye. Daphne thought it was more likely because Emily generally saw the dark in any situation.
Either way, Emily had been ready to journey to Somerset right then. Priscilla had agreed nearly as eagerly-any reason to take her betrothed, Nathan Kent, away from his demanding family. Even Ariadne and her betrothed, Lord Hawksbury, were going, because a mysterious manor was simply too picturesque to forego.
And then there was Daphne. Since before she and her friends had graduated from the Barnsley School for Young Ladies that spring, she had struggled to find her place. She'd tried being prim and proper at first, but the rules of Society felt more confining than a badly fitted corset. She'd embraced her adventurous nature and shocked her mother and many Society matrons to the point where her invitations had dwindled. It seemed impossible to find that middle ground.
Now, here she was, unattached and alone, the last of her friends, against all odds, to find a beau. Conversations in London were bad enough these days, with Priscilla and Ariadne prosing on about whether bridal dresses should be gray or white and if Moroccan slippers should be allowed at wedding breakfasts. Just as bad, Emily moped because her inamorata, Jamie Cropper, had yet to propose even though she might actually be able to convince her father to allow her to accept because their last caper to uncover a French spy had resulted in Jamie being knighted. Daphne must remember to call the Bow Street Runner Sir James when next they met.
But with everyone mooning about, how much worse would it be at Brentfield, where everyone around Daphne was either married or about to be? She felt as if she were a dress everyone had outgrown.
She reined in Hortensia, praised her beloved steed for her speed, then turned her to trot back down the path. Perhaps she should stay home. Her father was remaining in town while her mother chaperoned Ariadne in the country. But already London was beginning to thin of company. And she'd miss catching the thief. She was the one her friends relied upon for feats of physical prowess, after all. She was the one most likely to be of assistance this time. If only she didn't feel like a spinster!
"Good morning, Miss Courdebas."
Daphne looked up to find a gentleman approaching, astride a silver-gray horse. Gentlemen were always approaching her, to challenge her to a race, to beg her for a dance at the next ball. Though they crowded her sitting room as well, not one had been moved to offer marriage. She was deemed a great gun, a good sport, one of the boys. She still felt alone.
Except with Wynn Fairfax.
She smiled now as her new friend reined in beside her. Wynn always looked slightly startled. Perhaps it was the way his hair, as dark as hot cocoa, tended to fly around his firm-jawed face. Perhaps it was the wide, sea-green eyes that blinked behind gold-rimmed spectacles. Either way, he returned her smile now as he patted his horse's powerful neck.
"You're out early," he commented.
"A great deal on my mind," she confided.
His smile broadened. "And it's easier to think astride."
"Exactly!" Daphne beamed at him and watched his cheeks turn pink. It was amazing to think that a gentleman might be embarrassed by her appreciation and not the other way around. It was equally amazing how well he understood her when they'd known each other only a month.
She would never forget the night they'd met. She had accompanied Ariadne and their friends to the hallowed halls of Almack's, that exclusive ladies' club. Ariadne had been there because she had fallen in with the intelligence corps and had been tasked to identify a French spy. But the spy had taken her captive and threatened her life before making his escape.
Daphne had gathered up her silk ball gown and followed the miscreant down the stairs and out the door, but she'd quickly realized that even she couldn't run him down in dance slippers. Glancing around, she'd spotted a trim high-perch phaeton stopped in traffic, with a young man in a many-caped greatcoat at the reins. Surely she was looking at a Corinthian, those sporting types who even drove their own carriages. Leaping up beside him, she'd pointed toward the fleeing felon, Emily's beau hard on his heels. "After them! That way!"
Anyone else would have demanded an explanation, but Wynn had called to his horses, expertly maneuvered them away from the press of traffic, and set off in pursuit. The wind pressing the fabric back against her, she'd clung to the side of the carriage as they thundered down the street.
"Faster!" she urged. "No one gets away with threatening my sister!"
"I fly, my Amazon!" he cried.
The perfection of the moment tingled along her skin. Or perhaps it was the night air.
"I'll get you as close as I can," he called over the rattle of tack. "But if I stop, he'll have time to escape."
"Don't stop," Daphne urged him. "I'll jump."
"You are amazing, madam," he said. "I only wish I could help."
"You're helping," Daphne promised. "There!"
He slowed just enough to allow her to leap off, and she landed on the spy and knocked him to the ground. Even as she gathered herself up, the Bow Street Runner arrived to take the Frenchman into custody.
"Much obliged, Miss Courdebas," he said, touching two fingers to his forehead under his thatch of russet hair. "You have the makings of a fine Runner."
Coming from him, one of the youngest members of that elite police force, she was honored. As he led the man off, she turned to find the phaeton standing nearby, waiting.
"How can I thank you?" she asked her valiant driver.
He climbed down from the coach and limped toward her, and she realized that he was lame.
"Only one way," he said, removing the top hat that had miraculously stayed on his head during their wild ride. "Tell me your name and promise me you'll receive me when I call."
Daphne stuck out her hand. "Daphne Courdebas, daughter of Lord Rollings."
"Wynn Fairfax," he replied. "Distant cousin to Lord Darby." He took her hand, grip firm and sure.
"Good to meet you," she'd said. "Feel free to call any time."
There hadn't been a day since that he hadn't stopped by, if only for a moment.
"So what's the problem this time?" he asked now, turning his horse to come parallel to hers as they trotted down the path. "Another French spy to capture? Jewel thief to apprehend? Murderous plot to foil?"
She'd told him all about their adventures. He was a good listener. Very likely the injury to his leg required him to sit and listen to any number of people. Either that or he found her voice a sleep tonic.
"Missing art treasures," she confided. "Just off the coast of Somerset, in an ancient manor riddled with secret passages."
"Perfect," he said. "When do we leave?"
Daphne reined in Hortensia so fast he had to circle back to her. "Wynn, you're brilliant! You must come with me and play my suitor!"
Wynn felt as if a clod of sand had flown up and hit him in the face. Play her suitor? What did she think he'd been doing the past month?
He would always remember the night Daphne Courdebas had thrust herself into his life. Since his injury when his horse had fallen taking a jump at Eton, everyone had treated him as if he were permanently damaged. They seemed to think his arms and mind had been shattered along with his left knee. She'd expected him to be capable, and he'd surpassed his wildest dreams. His heart had been hers from that second.
His mother, on the other hand, had been aghast when he'd proclaimed his infatuation.
"Daphne Courdebas?" She'd shuddered as she'd sat in the perfectly appointed sitting room, not one of her graying hairs out of place, not so much as a wrinkle on her lavender silk gown. "She's a hoyden, forever thrusting herself into public notice with her wild antics. I would never trust my son to her."
"Then it's a very good thing it's my decision," he'd said, earning him looks of surprise and admiration from his three sisters.
No one argued with his mother, not his sisters, not the staff, not even the vicar, not since his father had died eight years ago. Wynn generally went along with her dictates: no need to raise a fuss and upset her. But where Daphne Courdebas was concerned, he knew his own mind. He was not likely to meet another woman of her capabilities, beauty, and drive. Any man would be proud to stand beside her.
Oh, he knew he'd need his mother's permission to wed in England, as he was only eighteen, like Daphne. But there was always Scotland. He thought Daphne would approve of an elopement, even though they might scandalize Society for a time. Amazing how just thinking about her made him ready to brave anything.
Still, he wasn't willing to accept her vision of him as just a friend.
"Why do you need anyone to pretend to be your suitor?" he asked her now as they rode along the track. "You have dozens, from what I can see."
She waved a hand, the gesture wild and free. "None exclusive. The sporting set seems to chase after every girl they find interesting. No, it must be you. You've come over often enough that even Mother would believe you are courting me."
Her icy-eyed mother already suspected as much, even if Daphne didn't. Lady Rollings had made it very clear that she'd taken his measure and found him lacking. Very likely she was hoping for a title for her celebrated daughter.
Or at least a man who was whole.
"I'd be delighted to help," he assured her. "But I haven't been invited."
"I'll arrange it," she promised. "It isn't as if you'll get a better offer for a summer party."
"In a manor riddled with secret passages," he agreed. He ought to take umbrage on any number of points: that she hadn't realized he was serious in his pursuit of her, that she thought he'd drop everything to help her. But Daphne, he'd learned, was singularly focused. She'd meant no harm.
And if he went with her, perhaps he'd have an opportunity to prove the depth of his affections for her. Even a lame man might solve a mystery.
"So you'll come?" she asked, tone soft and beseeching, eyes the color of cornflowers staring at him. Those pink lips were pursed just so, as if she waited for his kiss. How could any sane man refuse?
"Of course," Wynn said. "What else would a suitor do?"