The marchioness swept up beside Cate with a wink. “I envy your choice of escort this evening. Do not share that with a living soul.”
Cate pressed her lips together, which forced a telltale dimple. “Neither a tittle nor tattle, Lady Sutherland.” She took in the splendor of the recital hall. A torchère of yellow tiger lilies framed a grand piano on a low dais. The platform was surrounded by several rows of gilded chairs. Drinks in hand, guests grazed a length of buffet tables laden with delicate desserts.
The elegant hostess surveyed a circle of men standing inside the hall. “The Gunn brothers are divine, are they not?” Her narrowed gaze roamed up Finn and down Hardy.
“Very dashing to see them in their plaids.” Cate’s own inspection followed the woman’s example.
“Descended from Pictish tribes and Norse gods.” The marchioness sighed. In one fluid motion, the woman lifted a flute of champagne from the tray of a passing servant and deposited her empty.
Cate scanned a room brightened by kilts. “Quite a few Scots here this evening.”
“Lord George Murray, the marquis, is a Highlander. As a consequence, our invitations often state ‘traditional attire’—formal of course.” The woman dipped closer. “His lordship informs me the Gunn clan are the chief troublemakers of the North.”
“Misadventure does seem to find them.” Cate stole another glance at the devilishly good-looking brothers. Charming, smart, and dangerous, all wrapped up in those eye-catching skirts. In her brief acquaintance with the young gentlemen, she had observed a maelstrom of trouble swirl about them. Finn and Hardy were a formidable challenge to lesser males and a bona fide magnet to women. Worst of it was, they knew it.
Finn had not seemed overly surprised to find his brother at the recital. It seemed Hardy had shown up unannounced and uninvited. On the prowl, one assumed, for Gwen Lennox. Not that Lady Sutherland seemed to mind. Anything to give an evening of piano sonatas and selected arias a bit of a lift.
The marchioness lowered her eyelids and took another smoldering glance at Hardy Gunn. “Nothing quite like a red-blooded young man in a kilt.”
Cate half expected the Lady Sutherland to break into song—a few bars of “Hielan’ Laddie.” A smile tipped the ends of her mouth. No, perhaps not.
Sleek and sophisticated, Lucinda Murray was striking to look at. She reminded Cate of a high-strung racehorse. Reluctantly, the lady tore her eyes off Hardy and gave Cate an impatient once-over. “I understand you are related to Arthur Willoughby, Baron Brooke—dear departed soul.”
“My uncle, Lady Sutherland.”
“You come from such excellent stock, yet you’ve taken up a scandalous métier—in the performing arts of all things.”
Cate’s gaze flicked over to Finn. He was on his way over. She breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “It’s hard to explain, actually . . .” She tried not to appear wistful. “I am passionate about dance and feel blessed to be doing the very thing I love most.”
“My dear, you sound like a vicar with a calling.” Finn stepped up beside her and nodded a bow to their hostess. “Good evening, Lucinda.”
The marchioness quite purposefully rolled her eyes. “I was hoping for a naughty evening—ever since you and Hardy arrived. And Miss Willoughby, of course.” The lady fashioned her signature stiff smile.
Finn waved his brother over. “Then you’re in luck, Hardy is on the prowl for something equally misbehaved.” He stepped back to allow the younger Gunn to move in beside Lady Sutherland. When the marchioness lifted her hand for a kiss, Hardy leaned in close. “How might I corrupt your evening, Lucinda?” Lady Sutherland snorted a soft laugh as Hardy set her hand on his arm. “And where might a man find a tumbler of whiskey around here?”
Cate tore her eyes off the elegant couple as they receded into crowd. “Why did you bring me here?” she asked. In a gesture that caught her completely off guard, Finn nudged her with his elbow and crooked an arm.
She exhaled a giant sigh and placed her arm in his.
“You aren’t enjoying Lucinda’s barbs and pricks? Come, come, Cate, the evening’s just begun—plenty of room for improvement.” He turned them about and headed for the back of the salon. As they passed the dessert table, Finn plucked a truffle from a tiered platter. He wrapped the round ball of chocolate in a lacy paper and slipped it into his evening jacket. “A bit of sugar for that sour temper of yours, should need arise.”
“I am not sour, I’m . . .
“Fractious, peevish . . . in need of a caper?” He tugged her along.
“It’s just that . . .” She returned the polite nod of a frail, elderly couple. “A musicale is not quite as sparkling as a ball, if you take my meaning.”
“Nothing of particular note, except for a few stunning ring fingers.” Finn leaned in. “And, oh yes—number seven.”
Cate stopped abruptly and stared. “One 65-carat Ceylon sapphire; 102 cabochon sapphires totaling eleven carats; 868 brilliant diamonds totaling 17 carats; and two emerald eyeballs weighing a carat each—all set in white gold and platinum.” She pulled him closer. “That number seven?”
“The Panther Brooch.” The twinkle in his eye sent a shiver down her spine.
“Who—where?” she stammered.
“Lucinda’s jewelry box would be a likely place to start.” They slipped through the dining room, past busy staff clearing the table, and back down an expansive marble corridor. Finn opened several doors before he found the servants’ stairs. On the third floor, he turned the knob. Cate wriggled between Finn and the crack in the door.
“What do you see?” His words breezed past her ear and tingled though her body. Cate caught her breath. An upstairs maid moved methodically from chamber to chamber. “A servant, turning down beds.” Tapping lightly on the next door in line, the girl hesitated a moment before entering the bedchamber. The door shut with a click.
Finn clasped her hand in his and led the way down the corridor. A muffled giggle came from behind closed doors as they padded down a length of carpet runner. He paused at the end of passage and craned his neck for a quick spy down the connecting hallway. “Ah, the lady’s bedchamber, if memory serves.”
“Do you and your brother frequent the boudoir of every married lady in Mayfair?” Her words came out in a hiss.
“Not all of the women are married.” Finn pulled her around the corner. “A widow or two, here and there.”
At Lucinda’s chamber door, he glanced back. “Love your nose that way.”
She relaxed the wrinkle but left the frown. “Yours is a rather generous nose. De rigueur, I suppose, for one who sniggles about for a living.”
“‘The mark of an, affable, generous and talented lover.’” Finn pulled her close. “Cyrano de Bergerac.” A cloud of perplexed thoughts appeared to whirl beneath the glimmer of his inky-black eyes. He was debating something. Would he tell her or would he not?
He cleared his throat.
She arched a brow.
“I used to enjoy a romp, now and then, when I was younger. Gave it up when I realized the idea of a tryst was more stimulating than the woman.”
“Not that you gave up these dalliances on moral grounds. But then, I suppose the thrill was rather cheap.” She sniffed.
Finn stared. “Ready to steal some jewelry, Cate?”
When she opened her mouth to protest he placed a finger to her lips and opened the bedchamber door. A hinge whined as the door widened. He slipped through the opening and waved her in. They both froze and waited for a murmur. A rustle. A breath.
The soft blue presence of moonlight poured across a draped poster bed and pointed the way into an alcove. Cate took the lead as they entered a plush dressing area. She opened the doors of a small armoire filled top to bottom with flat drawers, the shallow kind of trays that were often lined with velvet. The lady’s jewel case.
Finn jiggled the top drawer. “Locked.”
She removed two hairpins from her topknot and straightened them out. She slipped one pin into the lock and bent the other. It took several tries; each time she adjusted the zig and zag at the end of the pin.
The lock wouldn’t budge. “I can’t raise all the levers.”
“Shall we see what Roger can accomplish?” Finn held up a skeleton key.
Cate shifted to one side. “Queer name for a master key.”
“Rather ribald, actually.” Finn worked the key back and forth in the hole rather suggestively. Or was she just seeing it that way? A tinge of heat crept up her neck and across her cheek.
The key turned in the lock, but the drawer didn’t open.
“The next drawer down will open,” she advised. “At the back of the tray, you should find a spring-loaded latch.” She pushed her hairpins in back in place.
Finn pulled out the narrow shelf and felt around. “Now what?”
“Press it back until it clicks.”
Cate released a satisfied exhale. Even in near darkness she could make out his piercing stare. She shook her head. “Don’t.”
“You were going to ask where I learned such a thing.” She pulled out a tray and examined the contents.
“Where did you learn such a thing?”
She shoved the drawer in. “How incredibly exasperating you are.”
A scoff rumbled out of him, but he joined in the hunt. Tray by tray they systematically searched for the brooch. She worked mostly by feel, occasionally removing a piece and holding it up to the faint light. Near the bottom of the drawer stack Finn blew a soft whistle.
“Got it.” The large pin glittered in the moonlight. “You’d have to have a private audience with the Crown jewels to get close to a sapphire this size.” The creak of a door hinge broke the spell. He pocketed the brooch.
Shoving in drawers, they closed up the armoire. Murmured voices made it plain they were no longer alone. Finn steered her across the dressing room. A giggle and squeal accompanied a groan of bedsprings. He opened one side of the large wardrobe and pushed Cate inside. He dove in after her.
“Ouch!” Cate hissed.
“Your elbow is stabbing me.”
“Sorry.” He pushed silk gowns aside and inched the door to the armoire shut. A deep velvet darkness enveloped them. Finn tucked his sinewy length of body against hers. There wasn’t an inch of extra wiggle room. Cate sighed. “Couldn’t we crawl out a window? Shimmy down a drain pipe?”
His breath fell in steady intervals on her cheek. “Entirely too dangerous.”
“What then?” Cate huffed quietly.
“We wait for Lucinda to pull the drape on the bed.” Cate wondered why she bothered to ask. The man obviously knew the bedroom habits of a myriad of women.
“And what if she doesn’t let down the drapes?”
“She and the marquess have worked out a kind of informal signal.”
“How convenient for them.” The pitch blackness hid her frown. “I take it you and the marchioness are acquainted in the biblical sense.”
“Not quite?” Cate hissed softly. “How is that possible? You either have done the deed or you haven’t when it comes to sex.”
“Untrue. There are women with whom I might enjoy a flirtation at a soirée. Their wit, the sparkle in their eyes. An amusing moment. There are also women I enjoy a deeper friendship with. A female companion, say, who makes an excellent dinner partner. Stimulating conversation, a bit of leg rubbing under the table.” He nestled close in the darkness. “Then there are the women I desire to sleep with.”
Smothered amongst Lady Sutherland’s silks and taffetas, there was no room for escape. And this man was so . . . unsettling. Squirming a bit, her hand landed on hard muscular flesh and froze. “Why, Miss Willoughby, you have your hand on my thigh.” His husky whisper invited more, and her fingers obeyed, wrapping themselves around a hard curve of hamstring muscle. He exhaled a low-pitched groan that lifted the small hairs on her neck. Would they spend the night here—together? A soft kiss brushed her earlobe and his hand found the hard tip of her breast under layers of fabric.
Quite suddenly, she wanted him—wantonly, and all it took was a tingle. “I understand Scots pride themselves on not wearing a stitch under their kilts,”
Deep brown orbs glimmered in the dark. “You could find out easily enough.”
“Why on earth would I wish to do such a thing?”
“Then I suggest . . .” His kiss traveled over the tip of her nose. “You remove your hand from my thigh.” Husky words landed softly on her mouth.
Cate lifted her hand until just the fingertips remained on his skin. “The Panther broach—in exchange for a bit of discovery.”
He pulled away an inch. “Are we talking exploration as well as discovery?
Her hand traveled farther up his thigh—over smooth buttocks covered in just enough fuzz to keep her fingertips warm. His gluteus maximus was rock hard with a slight hallow in the cheek. She marveled at how well-muscled Finn was. “Male dancers have buttocks like this—not many ordinary men.”
There was a sharp intake of air in his answer. “Must be the fencing lessons . . . a lot of back and forth, parry and . . . thrust.”
Slowly, she inched her way over a curve of groin muscle. A broad velvet sword sprang up to greet her, ready and waiting.
She could almost see his grin. “As stiff as the megaliths on Machrie Moor, lass.” The burr in his speech that sent a shiver of desire through her body. She wished to impale herself upon this brawny Scot, and perhaps she would.
He lifted her petticoats and gown over her knee and swept his fingers under a satin garter. Had he read her mind, or were they just like-minded? He nibbled her earlobe. “I want ye, sorely.” He kissed a spot on her neck, then licked. “Wickedly.” His hand moved to the inside of her thigh...
“Rip it off.” Lucinda squealed. A bellowed grunt pervaded their little enclave. “Blasted hook and eyes,” Hardy complained. While Cate listened to the amorous acrobatics in the next room, Finn peeked through the crack in the wardrobe doors. “I believe this is our cue.”
She growled. “Must we?”
He returned a growl. “We must.”
Timing their escape from the wardrobe to the demise of Lady Sutherland’s corset, he brushed a kiss over her mouth. “We shall take this up again—very soon.”