NEW YORK CITY, 1903
“A lovely day fer a weddin’.”
The gleaming brand-new Packard purred as it idled in the circular, cobblestoned drive. Pierce St. Clare did not reply immediately, his gaze not on the small man beside him, who was driving the motorcar, but on the mansion facing them. Vast lawns and elm trees surrounded the four-story limestone house on this particularly glorious Sunday afternoon, and high wrought-iron gates barred the public from any access to it or the Fifth Avenue property it was on. Those iron gates were now wide open, as a few of the very last wedding guests continued to arrive in their handsome coaches and carriages, and were no cause for concern. But the trees disturbed him. They were very tall and level with the second story—they might interfere with his signal. “Keep your eyes open,” he finally said.
He stepped from the motorcar, a tall, lean, inherently elegant man, clad now like the two hundred other gentlemen present, in a black dinner jacket and matching trousers, a dress shirt and white bow tie, a white carnation pinned to one lapel. Dark hair swept across his brow, carelessly combed into place. His eyes were a brilliant blue. “I should be no more than twenty minutes. Look for my signal, Louie.” There was a warning in his tone.
The thin, middle-aged Louie, clad in tweeds, smiled at him from beneath his felt hat, revealing a silver front tooth. “Guvnor, a true piece o’ cake,” he said with a cocky wink.
Pierce eyed him then turned his attention upon the Boothe mansion. He strode briskly across the drive as Louie drove the Packard out of the way of the last few oncoming carriages. The invitation had suggested that one be prompt; the ceremony would start at precisely four P.M. Several couples were just entering the house as he fell into step behind them. The women were walking behind their escorts and had their heads together as they spoke in hushed tones, but he overheard their conversation anyway.
There was a queue, and it had stalled. Pierce stood very still, in spite of the fact that he was filled with restlessness and impatience.
“So fortunate,” the lady in low-cut pale blue silk was saying. “I cannot believe that poor, poor Annabel’s good fortune. I do mean, what an amazing turn of events! Who would have ever thought!”
The blond lady in silver chiffon agreed. “One would have never thought she’d land a husband. Good Lord, I mean, after all, she is twenty-three, is she not? Twenty-three with her two younger sisters already married for several years now—with little Elizabeth expecting! This is so fortunate for the so very unfortunate Annabel Boothe. I mean, Jane, I must admit, I truly thought she would remain a spinster for the rest of her days in spite of the Boothe fortune.”
“I thought so, too,” the brunette said. “After all, when one’s father cannot buy one a husband, why, there is truly no hope.”
“He must be smitten. Can you imagine? Why else would Harold Talbot marry her? He has his own fortune, you know.”
Pierce sighed, his gaze straying past the two women, hardly interested in the bride and her good—or bad—fortune. However, the Boothe fortune did interest him. George Boothe owned one of the most popular dry-goods emporiums in the northeast—if not in the entire country. G. T. Boothe’s was the most fashionable destination for those women venturing out upon the Ladies’ Mile. Recently, his net worth had surpassed that of John Wanamaker, his closest rival.
Pierce had already been a guest at the Boothes’ Thirty-third Street mansion, but he scanned the interior yet again. The foyer was huge and circular, the floor and pillars marble. Directly ahead, he could see most of the four hundred wedding guests finding their seats in the vast, domed ballroom where the ceremony was to take place. Overhead, a dozen huge crystal chandeliers hung. An altar had been set up at the very opposite end of the ballroom, framed with arches of pink and white roses and brilliantly lit up with hundreds of high, wide ivory tapers. Rows and rows of benches had been assembled to accommodate the guests, on either side of the long aisle upon which the bride would walk down. Perhaps fifty tall, wide ivory tapers on high pedestals graced either side of the aisle, interspersed with more floral arrangements. It was visually breathtaking, but Pierce remained oblivious. The ballroom interested him as much as the bride. But just outside of the ballroom, to his right, were the stairs.
It was a sweeping staircase of brass and cast iron.
The brunette, who was very attractive, was looking at him over her shoulder with a smile. Pierce realized she had caught him studying the house and he smiled back at her. She demurely lowered her eyes, but now the other woman turned to stare. Her cheeks became pink and she instantly faced forward, ducking her head toward her friend.
“Who is that?” she whispered, but he heard her anyway.
“Ssh. Not now. I do not know.” The brunette glanced quickly at him again.
This time, he bowed.
She flushed. Her wedding ring, the diamond at least eight full carats, glinted on her left hand. Purchased at Tiffany’s, it had cost an astonishing seventy-five thousand dollars.
And then the line moved forward, and George Boothe was greeting the two couples. Pierce remained relaxed.
Boothe saw him and smiled widely. “My dear Braxton,” he said, clasping his hand. “I am so pleased you could attend my daughter’s wedding after all.” He was in his late fifties, heavyset and jovial, with huge muttonchop whiskers.
Pierce smiled, a flash of dazzling white teeth, by now quite accustomed to the name that was not his. “George, how could I miss the happy event?” His British accent was pronounced and unmistakable.
Boothe stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I am extremely excited about the merger we discussed. I have scheduled a trip to Philly to look at your emporium next week and my bank has assured me, pending my inspection of the premises and your books, that there will be no problems at all. It looks as if we shall be moving forward far sooner than anticipated, my boy.” He beamed.
“I am very pleased, also,” Pierce said emphatically, the irony of the situation not lost upon him—poor Boothe expected to make another million or two when all was said and done, and he, Pierce St. Clare, knew not a whit about retail merchandising and hardly owned the emporium Boothe would soon be visiting. However, Pierce had no intention of being anywhere in the northeast by the time Boothe put two and two together and realized he had been taken, and royally. Pierce did smile at the irony of that.
He moved on, handing his hat and gloves to a waiting servant and pausing just inside the ballroom without taking a seat—so he could slip out as soon as possible.
He lingered until everyone was in the ballroom then stepped just past the threshold. When the foyer was empty, not a servant or guest in sight, he took the stairs two at a time to the second floor. No one saw him. He made sure of it.
He was sweating. One quick glance out of the window showed him that Louie might not see his signal, but there was a backup plan. He checked several doors until he came to the master bedroom, which was unlocked—not a good sign—and he quickly let himself in. The suite was an onslaught upon the senses—reds and golds competed with silks and damask and marble and wood. He knew where the safe was—and even if he hadn’t he would have been able to find it immediately, as the location was hardly original. The vault was behind the huge Tiepolo that was hanging on the crimson-flocked wall facing the draped, canopied bed.
He extracted a hearing trumpet from an interior pocket, slipped a ball of wax in his other ear, and got to work. Within sixty seconds he had opened the safe, feeling a surge of satisfaction as he did so. And then he stared.
It was empty.
Which explained why the bedroom had not been locked.
Pierce thought of Lucinda Boothe’s good friend Dariella, an extremely loquacious woman in bed, and he cursed. She claimed that Lucinda kept all of her jewels in the safe in her bedroom, and by damn, she had been wrong. For one moment, he felt like throttling the beautiful redhead for her misinformation—as guileless as it was.
But he had no time to lose. He checked his pocket watch. Eleven minutes had elapsed since he had left Louie outside. He slammed the safe closed, replaced the painting, and tucked his hearing trumpet in one of the many secret pockets that lined the interior of his dinner jacket. He stepped to the door, cracked it, and was reassured that no one was about. He hurried downstairs.
There was another possibility. In the foyer, he paused briefly to compose himself, glancing at the guests in the ballroom, all of whom were now attentively and restlessly awaiting the start of the wedding ceremony. A male servant suddenly entered the rotunda. But the man paid no attention to Pierce, disappearing down another hall with very brisk strides. Pierce turned and strode in the opposite direction. As he did so, he heard the organ in the ballroom begin to play. He was relieved, and he smiled.
Four hundred guests and the Boothe family would be very preoccupied for the next half an hour or so.
The very solid teakwood door to the library was closed. Only four nights ago he had been drinking a very fine and very old port wine within its confines, with George Boothe himself. The notes of the bridal march washing over him, Pierce tried the knob and found it locked. Instead of being dismayed, a thrill washed over him. He extracted a ring of skeleton keys from one of his pockets, trying several. The third let him in.
Pierce quickly closed the door behind him, his gaze slamming on the verdant John Constable landscape hanging over the fireplace. He smiled. And when he removed it from the wall, the dark metal vault stared back at him. Again, Boothe’s placement of his safes was hardly original.
In less than sixty seconds he had the vault open. His pulse surged when he saw the velvet boxes and pouches inside the dark interior. Quickly, he began dumping all of the contents out. There were rings and necklaces and earrings, a lifetime’s worth of jewelry. He sorted through quickly, looking for one piece in particular. And at last he found it. The pearl necklace. Pierce quickly inserted it into the specially sewn pocket that lined his dinner jacket.
He closed the safe, lifted the painting, which he did not pause to admire, and set it back upon its hooks. As he turned, he heard a noise, and realized that he had company.
And stared at the rotating brass knob on the library door. Someone was about to enter the room. Less than a second passed and Pierce moved, diving to the floor and scrambling over to the claw-footed green sofa, just as the door creaked open.
“Damn it,” a woman muttered very unhappily.
He relaxed very slightly—a woman would be easier to deal with than a man. His mind raced. His hiding place was a sham. He could not get under the sofa, the bottom was far too low, and while right now it served its purpose, because the couch was between him and the woman, it would become useless if the intruder did not stay on the other side of the room.
“Damn, damn, damn,” the woman moaned.
He stiffened again, because he could hear her soft footsteps as she entered the room, along with the rustling of her skirts. Worse, he had not heard her close the door and the dim light in the library had become brighter. The wedding march sounded far too loudly for comfort now. Why was this woman not with the guests? He glanced awkwardly toward the hearth. And he cursed silently. The Constable hung at an obviously unstable angle, a dead giveaway of the burglary that had just taken place.
Pierce gritted his teeth. He would have to straighten it before he made his hasty exit.
“Oh, God,” she moaned again, as if suffering very greatly. Pierce shifted so he could gaze beneath the sofa in her direction and he froze. Her skirts were stunningly white, beaded, and covered with lace. If he did not miss his guess, the woman was the bride.
He almost cursed aloud.
“Oh, God, what am I going to do?” she cried.
He stared at her skirts, not many paces from the sofa. The bride was in the library, but she was supposed to be walking down the aisle. From her tone, it did not take a genius to assume that she had little intention of doing what was expected of her—at least not in the near future. Worse, she was walking toward the couch. A dozen excuses for lying on the floor raced through his mind. He dismissed them all instantly as absurd.
And then her white slippered feet veered away. Pierce froze again, shifting, turning his neck at an impossibly awkward angle—she was walking around the couch. He held his breath, prepared to be discovered at any moment.
But she did not walk around it to sit down. Instead, she ambled past the sofa and the table and chairs surrounding it, her long pristine white skirts and equally long sheer veil trailing behind her. His gaze was unwavering. But now he was surprised. For an open bottle of champagne was clasped by its neck in her right hand.
She halted at the window, her back to him, gazing out at the sunny afternoon, or so he assumed. “How has this happened?” she whispered, and she raised the bottle and swilled directly from it.
The bottle was, he saw, two-thirds empty. Goddamn it. The bride was unhappy, she was drunk, and she was never going to leave the library so he could make his escape.
He quickly considered the possibility of slipping out of the room without being detected while she drank at the window. It was too risky. He considered standing up, before she turned, and introducing himself. Again, too risky—he’d be accused of the heist later. These two options he analyzed with lightning speed, within the span of several seconds. As a third option came to him, she turned, once again drinking from the bottle like a common saloon girl.
She swigged. And for another moment, as she clutched the bottle, he saw that she was drinking la grande dame of champagnes, a vintage year of Veuve Cliquot, and he gave her half a dozen points for her good taste and her ability to hold her liquor. She did not see him yet, but that would change in a moment. But where were her warts and birthmarks? Poor, unfortunate, just-barely-a-spinster Annabel Boothe was not what he might have expected—had he been expecting anything. She was blond, blue-eyed, angelically beautiful. Then he saw that she was staring at the painting that was hanging so lopsidedly over the fireplace. “Oh, dear,” she said to herself.
He grimaced, about to rise from his very awkward position on the floor.
And then her gaze moved directly to, and upon, him—where it riveted.
He smiled up at her, feeling rather foolish.
“Hello,” he said, aware of using his most devastating grin upon her.
“Oh, dear! Are you hurt?” she cried, rushing forward.
“Actually,” he said, seizing upon the excuse, “it is my knee. A bad injury, you see.” He began to rise.
To his surprise, she put the champagne down and in the blink of an eye was actually assisting him to his feet, supporting his weight with her shoulder. “Did you fall down?” she asked when he was finally standing upright, her arms still around him.
He stared into her brilliantly blue eyes, a blue that even two thirds of a bottle of superior champagne could not dim. In other circumstances, he would enjoy her concern and take advantage of it. “Yes, thank you, I did.”
“Here, let me help you to sit, then,” she said, pushing him toward the sofa.
“No, I am fine.” He resisted, and she was strong, surprisingly so for a woman of her size and attractiveness.
“But you are hurt.”
“It is an old injury, actually,” he said, smiling. “The war.”
“The war?” She continued to press her body against his, trying to urge him to the sofa. “What war?”
“The—ah—er—a brief skirmish in South Africa, you see.”
“South Africa? Of course, you are British. Your accent is quite pronounced. And—” Suddenly she stopped in mid-sentence. Her blue gaze was on his. He knew the moment she realized that she was embracing him and that he was a man—and an exceedingly rakish one at that. Or so many women had told him.
Her cheeks turned a very becoming shade of pink. She dropped her arms. “Perhaps you should sit,” she said, low and huskily, now avoiding his eyes.
He could not help himself, he staggered, as if imbalanced by his bad knee without her support.
“Oh,” she cried, with concern. Her arms went around him again.
He smiled at her as their gazes met. Poor, unfortunate Annabel Boothe? Inwardly, he did laugh. “Miss Boothe,” he said, as gently as possible, not breaking contact. “Are you not wanted elsewhere?”
She remained flushed, her gaze holding his again. And as she grasped his meaning, her expression changed dramatically. It crumpled, and she stepped away from him. He wondered if he was about to have a weeping woman on his hands. Perhaps she would swoon. That would be convenient. “Miss Boothe?”
But she snatched the bottle and looked at him defiantly. “I am hardly wanted, sir,” she snapped. But her tone was tremulous, ruining the effect of her glare.
“I am sure you are wanted very much, Miss Boothe,” he said gently, wanting her to go her merry way. But now she was angry—a response he had not anticipated. “I have heard that the groom is smitten.”
She gazed at him as if he had lost his mind.
He smiled again. “Smitten and with his own fortune, as well. A lady could hardly do better,” he encouraged. And almost added, at your age.
“He is a worm.”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.
Tears filled her eyes. “He is a spineless toad,” she said, her full pink mouth trembling. “I cannot marry him!”
He was taken aback. “Perhaps, my dear Miss Boothe, you and your fiancé should have a heart-to-heart after the nuptials?”
She continued to regard him as if he were a traitor. And then Pierce realized what was wrong. The organ had ceased playing. There was no wedding march. “Damn it,” he said.
“There cannot be nuptials or I shall be unhappy for the rest of my life,” she cried, drinking more champagne.
He could not believe his dilemma. “My dear Miss Boothe. This is your grand opportunity in life. Every young lady wishes to marry, especially a fine young man like your fiancé.”
“I do not wish to marry,” she said. She pushed the bottle toward him. “Would you care for a drink?”
On any other occasion he would have said yes. “Miss Boothe. If you reject your fiance now, you may not have a second chance,” he said as calmly as possible.
“Do you refer to the fact that I am twenty-three and a half years old, sir?” She swigged again.
He smiled, and it was forced. “I would hardly be so bold.”
“I am being sold off like a milk cow,” she said.
“You are hardly a milk cow, Miss Boothe. You are attractive, well-spoken, gracious, why, you are what every man dreams of.” There, he thought, that should do it.
“Are you well?” she asked. “I think you are delusional.”
Most women did not have such a word in their vocabulary, much less even know its meaning, and he could only stare.
Pierce was actually contemplating commanding her to go to the ballroom when he heard a woman calling Annabel’s name from outside the library. “Annabel?”
He jerked around, alarmed.
“It’s my mother,” Annabel muttered. “Oh, God, why does the entire world think I should marry him?”
He whirled again. “Because you should, you can,” he said, his hands on her shoulders, “and you will.” His intention was to push her out of the room, by damn, before they were discovered—before he was discovered. But he felt something odd on his hip. Something hard. Something that should not be there. At first he thought it was the champagne bottle that she continued to grip by her skirts.
“Annabel? Dear, please, where are you?” Lucinda Boothe cried from somewhere just outside of the library in the corridor.
It was not the champagne bottle. Pierce felt the object slide down his thigh. He glanced down just in time to watch the magnificent triple-tiered pearl and diamond necklace slipping along his black pants leg to the floor.
“What is that!” Annabel cried, her gaze on the glittering necklace as well.
“Annabel?” Lucinda Boothe sounded as if she were in the doorway—or very close to it.
Pierce met Annabel’s accusing blue gaze, smiled, and grabbed her. With one strong arm he clamped her to his torso. “Do not scream,” he said calmly. “Or I will break your neck.”
She froze. For a brief instant, her disbelieving gaze held his. “You wouldn’t!” she gasped.
“Do not test me,” he returned, bending to retrieve the necklace. And as he did so, she shifted, bent, and tried to jam her elbow right in his groin.
Pierce realized what she was doing before she could succeed and he managed to elude her and prevent a very serious injury, indeed. He jerked her up hard against him again. And this time, he used his free hand to point a revolver at the base of her skull. “Miss Boothe. That was hardly ladylike. I suggest you cooperate. You are a very beautiful woman. I like beautiful women. I do not want to hurt you, but I have no desire to find myself in jail.”
“Then you should not be a thief,” she spat, very flushed and struggling wildly now. “You won’t shoot me. You are no cold-blooded killer, sir!”
“Do not bet your life upon it,” he said coolly.
“Annabel!” Lucinda Boothe screamed.
Pierce turned, hugging Annabel to his body, and he smiled at Lucinda Boothe, who stood just inside the library doorway. The plump blond lady was in the midst of losing all her coloring. “Madam, I suggest that you stand still. I will not hurt your daughter.”
“I am fine, Mama,” Annabel said stoically. “He has stolen your jewels,” she added, twisting to fling a grave look at him over her shoulder.
Lucinda Boothe stared at them soundlessly, then slumped to the floor in a dead faint.
“Mama!” Annabel cried. “She needs her salts. She is always fainting.”
“Thank God for small things,” Pierce said, hustling his hostage past the unconscious woman, out of the library and down the hall. He did not falter, in spite of the fact that two servants were in the foyer and they halted in their tracks, their eyes widening, their mouths forming O’s.
“Help!” Annabel shrieked abruptly.
“Do not move,” Pierce countermanded the staff, jerking on her. The servants remained frozen like statues. Annabel refused to move her feet so he dragged her across the foyer. His glance could not help but take in the ballroom. Heads were turning. Gasps were heard. Four hundred guests were becoming cognizant of the abduction of the bride.
Pierce himself could hardly believe what was happening. He propelled the now-silent Annabel and himself to the threshold of the foyer.
“Braxton!” Boothe cried from behind him in shock and disbelief.
Pierce halted, facing Annabel’s father. “I will not hurt her. Do not move.”
Boothe was incredulous, but anger quickly overcame him. “You son of a bitch! Release my daughter!” he shouted from the entrance to the ballroom.
A young man had come up beside him, as blond and blue-eyed as Annabel, clad in a tailcoat with a red carnation pinned to his lapel. “Oh, God!” he cried. “He is stealing my bride! Someone do something!” A dozen guests crowded behind him and Boothe now.
“As long as nobody moves, she will be returned to you no worse for wear,” he said, briefly pointing the revolver at the crowd. Collectively they gasped.
Pierce replaced the muzzle of the pistol to Annabel’s skull and dragged her out of the house.
“You will regret this,” she cried, but now she was running with him of her own volition.
“I am sure that I will,” he said. But he was not thinking about the bride. He had never signaled Louie from the second floor as had been the plan, but the backup plan had called for Louie to have the Packard waiting for a getaway in thirty minutes should Pierce fail to signal. He was certain that thirty-five minutes or so had elapsed, but the Packard was nowhere to be seen. Had Pierce had the luxury, he would have been in a state of severe disbelief. Louie had never let him down before.
“Damn it, Louie!” he said, hurrying with Annabel toward the drive.
“Who is Louie?” she gasped, tripping now over her skirts as he increased their pace.
Pierce had no intention of answering her, because the father of the bride, the groom, and at least a hundred guests were crowding the front door of the mansion, watching him as he fled with Annabel. And then, just past several parked coaches and waiting grooms, he saw the Packard. “Louie!” he roared.
And Louie saw him. The Packard had been idling, now it came to life, rolling forward. Pierce ran to it, Annabel clamped to his side. When he reached the motorcar, he released her, pushing her away. She fell onto her hands and knees in the drive as he vaulted into the passenger seat. “Go!” he said, as Louie shifted gears. And he turned to look at her. Sweat was trickling into his eyes.
She was rising. Grass, dirt, and gravel now stained her wedding dress, and her blue eyes were wide. She faced him, and their gazes locked. The tiara she wore, which held her veil in place, was slipping.
Pierce was sorry that he had ruined her wedding. But since she was so reluctant to wed, maybe he had done her a favor. He couldn’t help feeling an odd regret. There was nothing unfortunate about Annabel Boothe and she deserved a real man, not that milksop he had seen in the foyer.
And the Packard jerked, backfired, and stalled.
“Damn it.” Pierce turned to Louie, incredulous.
Louie was leaping out, to crank up the engine again.
Pierce jumped into the driver’s seat and shifted. Half a dozen gentlemen were running from the house toward him, including Boothe and the groom. Murder was justifiably upon their minds. And Annabel just stood there, a few feet from the motorcar, as if she had turned into a statue herself, watching them running toward her in her spoiled and stained wedding dress.
The engine roared to life.
“Get in!” Pierce shouted at Louie.
Louie was already racing for the passenger door, but Annabel had turned and seemed to be doing the exact same thing. Pierce could not believe his eyes as the two of them collided. “Christ. Get in, Louie!” he roared.
They separated, Louie tripping on Annabel’s voluminous skirts. Pierce watched the pack of men coming closer—they were twenty yards away. And then a flurry of white landed in the seat beside him, followed by his driver, who leapt upon Annabel. As she shoved Louie to the floor, Pierce slammed down the gas pedal, gritting his teeth, filled with anger, the veil flying in his face. He brushed the transparent material out of his eyes as the Packard leapt forward, spitting out stones from beneath its tires.
This was unbelievable.
The Packard sped wildly around the circular drive. A horse reared, backing up in terror, pushing its coach into another carriage.
Gripping the steering wheel with two hands, his gaze glued on the straightaway and Fifth Avenue, beyond that, Pierce saw, from the corner of his eye, Louie righting himself in the same seat as the bride. And then they were shooting through the wide-open front gates. Tires screeched as he turned the Packard so hard to the left that two wheels briefly lost contact with the ground.
Annabel was huffing and puffing and pushing her veil out of her face and eyes. She did not look at him. Her cheeks were very red.
But Louie did, absolute amazement on his face, along with an obvious question.
He was driving very fast, passing carriages, wagons, a hansom, and a cyclist. The Holland House, one of the city’s most fashionable hotels, was on their right. A liveried doorman was standing in the street to wave down a cab, and a pair of gentlemen were attempting to cross on the same corner of Thirtieth Street. A dray was also trying to cross Fifth Avenue. Driving was taking almost all of his concentration. Casting one brief glance of steel at the very flushed bride, he said, “Throw her out.”
“Aye, aye, guvnor,” Louie replied.
“In the Light of Day” copyright © 1998 by Brenda Joyce. “The Love Match” copyright © 1998 by Rexanne Becnel. “A Weddin’ or a Hangin’” copyright © 1998 by Jill Jones. “Beauty and the Brute” copyright © 1998 by Barbara Dawson Smith.