From his seat on the floor with the general audience, James Ryding lifted the opera glasses and studied the balcony that stretched in a semicircle around the theater. The dimness of the gas lamps suited his covert purpose. While the actors traded witticisms on the stage, drawing laughter from the spectators, James scanned the aristocratic guests until he spied his quarry.
A small party occupied one of the private boxes reserved for the upper crust. In the front sat a middle-aged man and woman, along with a young lady. Although the girl was not the object of his scrutiny, James found himself pausing to observe her through the magnifiers.
She was strikingly pretty in a low-cut yellow gown that displayed her voluptuous charms. Coppery curls tumbled down to one of her shoulders. As she turned her head to whisper to a pair of gentlemen sitting to the rear, her lips formed a laughing curve.
The sight of that flirtatious smile sparked a visceral heat in James. He imagined them entwined in each other’s arms while he kissed her. He craved to know her scent and her taste, the feel of her curves beneath his hands. The fantasy was so vivid that heat rushed to his loins.
A tug on his sleeve yanked James back to the crowded theater. Clamping his teeth around an irritated growl, he lowered the opera glasses and frowned at the elderly man seated beside him on the bench.
Percy Thornton had bony shoulders hunched inside an ill-fitting brown coat. His gray eyebrows were raised in inquiry above his pale blue eyes. “Do you see them, sir?” Thornton whispered anxiously. “Arethey your cousins?”
James cudgeled his thoughts back to the present. “I can’t say for certain just yet.”
He peered through the glasses again, this time studiously ignoring the girl and focusing on the older couple beside her. A stout gentleman with thinning brown hair, George Crompton wore a crisp white cravat and a tailored blue coat. His wife, Edith, looked rather youthful in a bronze gown with the sparkle of a diamond tiara nestled in her upswept russet hair.
James struggled to reconcile the picture of husband and wife with the memory of his last visit with them more than two decades earlier. Alas, the mists of time had blurred their images. The only clear picture from the past that he’d retained was of playing with Edith’s pet spaniels.
“Are you sure you don’t recognize either of them?” Thornton prodded.
“I’m afraid not. They’re too far away. And kindly keep in mind, the last time I laid eyes on them I was a mere lad of ten.”
James kept his voice low even though the laughter of the audience masked their conversation. Everyone around him was engrossed in the play. Besides, no one would be expecting a gentleman to be seated down here with the common folk. Not when he was connected to the finest families in England. And not when he’d been away in Barbados for so many years.
There, he’d been master of a thriving plantation, the largest on the island, until a massive storm had flattened his ripening crop of sugar cane and reduced his house and outbuildings to kindling. Rebuilding would necessitate an influx of cash, but he’d sunk all his spare money into expanding his acreage. The notion of taking out a bank loan left a bad taste in his mouth. After witnessing his father being hounded by creditors all those years ago, James had vowed never to sign any IOUs.
For that reason, the arrival of the letter from Thornton had been a godsend. The old man had once been manager of the estate in Lancashire belonging to George Crompton. A trusted employee, Thornton had stayed on to watch over the place while the Cromptons had moved to India long ago.
In the letter, Thornton wrote that when he’d called on George Crompton to settle the matter of a neglected pension, Thornton had made a shocking discovery. The couple living in the Berkeley Square mansion were not the same people who had once employed Thornton.
George and Edith Crompton were imposters.
At first, James had dismissed the wild notion. Such a deception seemed impossible to accomplish. How could two criminals take over the lives of his cousins without anyone noticing?
Yet when a second letter had arrived from Thornton, urging James to take action, he’d paid closer attention. George Crompton had amassed great wealth during his twenty-year sojourn in India. His extensive holdings were rumored to rival the riches of the royal family. If Thornton was correct, and the man sitting up there in the box seat was not James’s cousin, then foul play had been committed.
Assuming George Crompton’s wealth had been embezzled, at what point had it happened? Years ago or only recently? The woman must be privy to the crime, too. Somehow, they’d managed to pull off the bold scheme with no one the wiser. Yet surely someone, a coworker or an acquaintance in India, would have sounded the alarm.
And the bigger question was, What had happened to the real Cromptons? Had they been murdered?
James intended to find out. If the story was true, then justice must be done on behalf of his cousin. James also acknowledged that in the process he himself would reap a king’s ransom for exposing them as criminals. As the only male relative, James was heir to the Crompton estate in Lancashire and much of the family holdings.
Few people knew his full name was James Ryding Crompton. Dropping the use of his surname had been an act of defiance against a father he’d despised.
His gaze flitted again to the young lady sitting in the box seat. She was still flirting over her shoulder with the two gentleman seated behind her. The spring social season had barely begun, but already she had acquired an entourage of admirers.
“Which daughter is the girl with them?” he asked Thornton.
“The youngest … I believe her name is Miss Blythe Crompton. There are two older sisters, but they’ve already married into the aristocracy.”
James narrowed his eyes at the laughing girl. Wealth had bought her acceptance into the highest circles. How much did Miss Blythe Crompton know of the swindle perpetrated by her parents? Was she a full-fledged party to the deception? Or had it happened when she was too young to remember?
The answer didn’t signify. If George Crompton was a charlatan, he must suffer the full force of the law.
“What will you do?” Thornton whispered. “Will you join society and call on them?”
James glanced over at his companion. “No. That would only serve to put them on their guard.”
“But you must do something, sir. Those two mustn’t be allowed to get away with such an offense.”
“I quite agree. However, it would be best if I could observe them for a time without their knowledge. To study them closely and find proof of their crime.”
And James knew the perfect way to do so.
Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Dawson Smith