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Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys Book 1) by KJ Charles (1)

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1895

How ought one dress to hire a thief?

Alec woke up with the question in his mind and couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t answer it either, no matter that his options were exceedingly limited. A lounge suit would presumably be best, for informality, but should he wear a colourful waistcoat, to indicate his divergence from sober respectability, or a plain one to avoid attracting attention?

He mused on that throughout breakfast and decided on his muted maroon silk waistcoat, but was immediately struck with uncertainty. Was a lounge suit right after all, considering they were meeting in, of all places, a box at the music hall? Ought he wear evening dress? The Grand Cirque was of the better class of music hall, and he would normally wear evening dress to take a private box, but what if the men he was to meet were clad as he imagined thieves to be, in rough fustian, perhaps with neckcloths pulled up over their mouths? No, that was ridiculous, and he’d been assured the criminals would look like gentlemen, but in that case...

Round and round it went in his head the whole day, a maddening litany. Alec knew perfectly well that he was fretting in order not to consider any of the larger questions, such as What the devil are you doing?

He didn’t, couldn’t think about that. He’d been driven to this extremity by the slow-building fury of years and the grief and anguish of the last six months. He wasn’t going to back out now.

He spent the day completing a picture of Hyde Park in bloom for the Illustrated London News, because when he drew he didn’t think so much. When evening finally came, he put on the grey lounge suit, tried all four of his waistcoats, discovered the maroon one had a spot on it, changed into evening dress, took it off again, and realised that after all this, he was going to be late.

“Alec, you dunderhead,” he said aloud to the man in the speckled mirror. He hurried on the lounge suit, no time to play the fool now, hesitated for a painful second between a darker grey waistcoat and the bright green and gold one he hadn’t worn for six long months of mourning, glanced at the cheap clock on the mantel, and grabbed the green. It suited him, at least. He only just remembered to snatch up the flimsy ticket on the way out.

It was a warm June, too warm to run, but he couldn’t afford hansom cab fare so he hurried instead, while telling himself he needn’t be on time to the minute. Punctuality was the politeness of princes, but did that apply when one was meeting criminals?

Holborn was its usual chaos. He picked his way through the crowds, past flower-stalls and shouting newspaper-boys proclaiming the last edition, and approached the Grand Cirque feeling unpleasantly sweaty for more reason than the thick heat. Christ, was he going to do this? Really? Was he going to keep an assignation and solicit a crime?

And if he turned around and walked away, what the devil would he do next?

That was the great unanswerable question, the one he’d stuck on during every sleepless night. If he didn’t act, what would he do, today or tomorrow or for the rest of his life? If he missed this chance, would there be another, and would he have the nerve to take it, having refused the fence once already? He had a feeling he knew the answer to that one.

It’s now or never.

He squared his shoulders, fished the ticket out of his pocket, and walked up to the doorman, feeling appallingly self-conscious and rather as if a policeman’s heavy hand might descend on his shoulder at any moment. He hated that feeling, one with which he was all too familiar, albeit not for the current reasons. It would be so much nicer if he were risking arrest on the usual grounds, if the men he was going to meet were...well, quite different from what he expected them to be.

Music-hall misbehaviour à trois was a charming fantasy that distracted him up the several steep flights of stairs and shivered into nothing as he made his way to the indicated box.

He knocked. “Come in,” a voice called, so he did.

The performance was already in full swing below, the noise of five men singing in close harmony and the groans of an unimpressed crowd blasting up. The smoky gaslight—no electrification here—cast a yellowish glow over the dark red walls and gilt decorations and left the box mostly in shadow. The box, and the two men waiting in it.

“Sit down,” one of them said. “Mr. Pyne?”

Alec nodded. “Yes. That’s me.”

“Remind me whence you had our names.”

He sounded very educated, with a university man’s drawl. Alec blinked. “Er, I don’t have your names. A chap named Holcomb told me you were the people I needed.”

“We may be,” the man said. “The question is whether we need you.”

Alec’s eyes were adjusting now and he was able to take a look at the pair. They both seemed a few years older than himself, thirty to thirty-five, perhaps. Well but casually dressed, Alec noted, and felt relieved he hadn’t opted for his black tailcoat. The one who’d done the talking had a curling moustache, thick chestnut hair with a notable wave, and eyes that might prove to be blue in daylight. The other man had dark brown hair, darker eyes, and a substantial moustache and beard. Alec restrained the impulse to put his hand to his own naked face. More fellows were shaving now, particularly the fashionable sorts, but as far as many people were concerned, failure to grow a respectable moustache remained an indictment of one’s virility.

The two men opposite him looked virile enough. The moustachioed speaker was strikingly big: broad, sturdy, and giving the impression he would tower over Alec when they stood. His bearded companion was of more usual proportions, lean and long-limbed in the way of hunting men. Both of them looked capable, confident, and not at all like the rapscallions of Alec’s imagination. They looked more like soldiers. Or police officers.

“Uh,” he said. “I don’t know what Mr. Holcomb told you.”

“Don’t you?” Moustache said. “Pal of yours, is he?”

“An acquaintance. Not really even that. A friend of a friend said he might be the man to put me in touch with, uh, someone like you.”

“I do hope Holcomb is sure of his friends.” That was Beard, speaking at last. His voice was deeper than Alec had expected, not as aggressively upper-class as his partner’s. “He told us you had a worthwhile proposition for the Lilywhite Boys. Why don’t you tell us what that might be?”

“Uh,” Alec said again, seized with urgent panic now he was on the verge of commitment. “Um. I don’t wish to be rude but how do I know...?” He let that tail off in the hope that someone would interrupt him. They didn’t.

“How do you know what?” enquired Moustache after a painful silence. He lifted a hand and counted on the fingers. “That we’re the Lilywhite Boys and not, say, masquerading police officers, or friends of your pal playing a joke? That we’ll keep your request private and not demand a large sum to forget about it? That we can do what you want, that you can trust us to make a deal, that you won’t end up in chokey?”

“Well, yes,” Alec said. “All of that.”

“You don’t.”

“Oh.”

“We can’t really offer guarantees,” Beard said. “Let alone contracts.”

“You don’t know who we are, and we don’t know who you are,” Moustache added. “For all we know, Mr. Alec Pyne, you might be a police officer yourself.”

“I’m not.”

“I dare say, but I’m not taking your word for it.”

“Well, what do we do then?” Alec said, baffled.

Moustache smiled suddenly. He had a charming smile: the kind, Alec rather thought, that he’d often been told was charming and had learned to use accordingly. “We’ll just have to rub along. Did Holcomb tell you an important fact about us?”

“He said if I played straight with you, you’d play straight with me,” Alec said. “And then he added, ‘They’ve got their own idea of straight, mind you.’”

Beard gave a crack of laughter. Moustache grinned. “Yes, that’s about right. If you don’t play straight with us, we’ll resent it, and you’ll regret it. Got that, Mr. Pyne?”

“Noted.”

“Good. My name is Templeton Lane, and my colleague is Jerry Crozier.” Beard—Crozier—lifted two fingers to his brow. “Now, why don’t you tell us what it is you have for us, and we’ll tell you if we’re interested. And if we’re not, or if our interest doesn’t suit you, we’ll all forget about this conversation and enjoy the show.”

Alec took a deep breath. He thought of George, of Cara and Annabel, of Mother, and a small near-empty church, and the smell of squashed holly berries.

He said, “I want you to rob the Duke of Ilvar.”

Crozier’s eyebrows shot up. Lane’s mouth curved. “Do you. How intriguing. Any particular reason?”

“He’s rich.”

“That’s a good reason,” Crozier said. “Is this a general suggestion for larceny, or have you anything more substantial to add?”

The close harmony singers stopped their warbling, to some applause. Alec hadn’t really been aware of them but now the lower background noise made him feel self-conscious. He leaned in. Crozier’s brows tilted, angling upward to the middle of his forehead as if silently repeating the question. Alec had never had that sort of eyebrow control, and envied those who did. Mind you, apparently it gave one wrinkles and one wouldn’t want those; it was bad enough he’d turned twenty-eight and had already found suspiciously grey hairs among the blond at his temples.

Oh God, he was terrified.

“You look like a conspirator,” Crozier said. “And one that’s about to be sick, as well. Sit back, you’re making me twitch.”

Alec recoiled. Lane sighed. “Don’t mind him. He’s never got over the army.” He flickered a glance over the side of the box, to the stage. “The dancing girls are about to come on. I assure you, nobody will be looking up here, or able to eavesdrop. You mentioned the Duke of Ilvar.”

“A name to conjure with,” Crozier said drily.

There was a roar of applause from below as the dancing troupe pranced on to the stage. Alec glanced over, made himself look back. “He’s very rich. I suppose you know that.”

“Immensely,” Crozier said. “And much of his wealth is hung around the neck of his Duchess, who has one of the greatest collections of jewels outside royal hands as testament to his affection.”

“Such affection,” Lane added soulfully. “His devotion is legendary, and there has never been a breath of scandal against her name. Aside from notoriously cuckolding her first husband with the Duke, of course, but they married afterwards, so who am I to quibble.”

Alec looked between them uncertainly. “Yes. Well. Ilvar is spending a king’s ransom on a diamond parure—a matching set of jewellery—”

“We know what a parure is.” Crozier spoke quite gently, without emphasis, but the words still jarred Alec, because these men, these well-spoken well-groomed men-about-town, were professional jewel thieves. It was hard to keep that in mind.

“Yes. Of course. Uh...”

“The diamond parure?”

“Earrings, a magnificent necklace, a bracelet. Matched stones of the finest quality. He commissioned it over a year ago to be a gift for her on the twentieth anniversary of their wedding. It cost eleven thousand pounds.”

Lane whistled. Crozier’s mobile brows twitched up. “And that’s what you want?”

“I’d think it would be what you want too,” Alec said. “No?”

“Oh, unquestionably,” Crozier said. “The difficulty would be getting it. Her collection is kept at the extremely remote Castle Speight which is heavily staffed at all times and equipped with the most up-to-date model of safe—a Chatwood, cursed hard to drill, with a Bramah lock, famously unpickable. Moreover, lacking the endearing negligence of those born to the upper classes, the Duchess takes a great deal of care when travelling that her jewel case is constantly guarded. And the castle is never thrown open to visitors. It makes a fellow’s job quite impossible.”

Alec’s mouth was hanging open. “How do you know all that?”

“Because we’ve considered the Ilvars and given them up as a bad job,” Lane said. “They are perhaps the worst target in the British aristocracy. Or are we wrong?”

“I don’t know about that. I—” Alec had planned this, rehearsed it, but the words stuck in his throat. “I, uh. I could get you into the house. Into Castle Speight.”

There was a pause. The music blared, the dancers’ feet thundered on the stage, the audience whooped, yet Alec’s breath seemed far too audible in his own ears.

“Could you,” Crozier said at last. “In what capacity?”

“There’ll be a grand event there in August, for their wedding anniversary. A dinner. It’ll be the first one they’ve held there in years, they don’t usually entertain in that way. The Duchess will have all her most magnificent jewels and the parure will be presented. There’ll be all sorts of guards, security, but—but you know how to, to—”

“Steal things?” Crozier said. “Yes, we do.”

“Well, I’ll be attending,” Alec said. “And if you can come with me—”

“Noted. First question, Mr. Pyne: what terms do you have in mind for this?”

“Terms?”

“Do you simply want to see the Ilvars robbed on principle? Are you hoping to settle a grudge? Or are you looking for a cut of the loot?”

Alec felt his cheeks flush. “The latter. I, er, don’t know what you usually...” He loathed negotiation at the best of times. “Fifty fifty?” It came out as a question despite his best intentions.

Crozier’s brows angled again, one up, one down. Alec was becoming fascinated with that. “Ambitious of you, if we’re doing the work and taking the risk.”

“You couldn’t get in there without me, though. And there’s risk for me too.”

“Which brings me to the next question,” Lane said. “How will you be in a position to get us in?”

“I’ll be able to.” Alec didn’t want to go into this. It was too hot in here, too smoky. He could feel the sweat beading on the back of his neck. “If I get you in as a guest, can you—”

“How long for?” Crozier interrupted.

Alec blinked. “How long do you need?”

“How long is a piece of string? We need time to assess the lie of the land. I don’t intend to hold the room up at gunpoint, in a mask, like one of those dreadful Americans. We prefer to plan a little better than that.”

“Specifically, we prefer to be a long way away from the scene of the crime when the police are called,” Crozier added. “Ideally having ensured a solid alibi for our accomplices.”

“Oh.”

Lane winked at him. “We’re called the Lilywhite Boys for a reason, old chap. Few arrests, no convictions.”

“Well, that’s...good,” Alec managed.

“It is good,” Crozier agreed, “and it’s achievable given a bit of planning time. Again: do your powers stretch to that?”

Alec took a deep breath. “I could get you there a few days before the dinner. There will be a house party before the grand ball; I dare say I could add you to that. You, uh, you would need to present yourselves as gentlemen.”

“Entirely achievable,” Lane assured him. “And that raises the final and most crucial question: how is it that you, Mr. Pyne, are going to be present at the notoriously inhospitable Castle Speight on this touching family occasion?”

Alec’s mouth was completely dry now. The performance had changed again while they were talking; he hadn’t noticed it, except to become vaguely aware of a comedian’s shrill Scottish-accented voice buzzing in his ear, waves of laughter.

He licked his lips. “I’m acquainted with him. The Duke of Ilvar. I can get you in. That’s all you need to know for now.”

Crozier and Lane exchanged glances, a flicker of a look. Crozier sat back. Lane steepled his hands, flexing them slowly. “Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, with a small f. Or even two small fs, when you think about it. Third child of the Duke by his first wife, deceased. By trade an illustrator for the picture papers as Alec Pyne. I can’t blame you for shortening that mouthful.”

“What—”

“We don’t go into situations blind, Mr. Pyne, or should that be Lord Alexander. We knew who you were within twelve hours of you seeking this meeting. It is our habit to look ahead.”

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” Crozier said in a tone of quotation. “We keep our axes sharp, Lord Alexander.”

“Alec. Or Pyne. I don’t go by the title.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think that’s any business of yours.”

Lane leaned forward and tapped him on the knee. “Alec, old pal? If you want us to come to your father’s house as your friend and rob him in his own home—to pose as your guest and clean out your stepmother’s drawers—it is our business. No lies, no surprises. You work with us in full or you don’t work with us at all.”

“That is an option,” Crozier added calmly. “We’d far rather you change your mind now than later. No hard feelings and all that. But if you go ahead, no finer feelings either. We would be very upset if you committed our time and then decided you couldn’t go ahead with stealing from your own father.”

Blood surged into Alec’s cheeks. “It isn’t like that!”

“We don’t care,” Crozier said, with terrible simplicity. “You’re in or you’re out. And if you’re in, there will be no middle ground, no secrets, no sudden surges of decency in the third act. Either you’re going to help us steal from your father and split the proceeds, or we’ll shake hands now and watch the show.”

“Actually, we’re going to watch the show anyway,” Lane said, and pointed to the stage, where a woman was coming on to wild applause. “Miss Christiana.”

“About time. We’re actually here for her,” Crozier informed Alec. “You have a think.”

On which they both turned to the performance. Alec sat, stunned. He’d imagined a lot of ways in which this conversation, this conspiracy might go; he hadn’t pictured admitting his treacherous intent and then having that dreadful confession put to one side in favour of a music-hall act.

And a female impersonator to boot, he realised, as he heard the light tenor. The singer was painted for the stage but not to excess, and wore a wig with cascading dark ringlets and a high-necked dress suitable for a governess. The respectable appearance was doubtless deliberate, because she was singing “I’d Just Like to Know,” a minor sensation of innuendo that required the performer to deliver the filthiest possible implications with total innocence.

The Lilywhite Boys hadn’t been joking about being here for Miss Christiana, either, because they were both watching intently. Lane started laughing almost at once, a deep and infectious sound. Crozier’s response was more restrained but his smile widened at the more outrageous lines, into a sharp-angled expression that was frankly wicked.  

Miss Christiana would perform perhaps three or four songs, and then the Lilywhite Boys would turn back and demand a decision.

Alec had come here to set up a robbery, but he hadn’t quite let himself think of it in the bare terms the thieves had used, the ones the newspapers would use if or when this went wrong. Planned to steal from his own father, abusing his position as a son and the hospitality of Castle Speight...

But his father had stolen from him, from all his children. He had stolen their birthright and the lives of luxury a duke’s offspring might expect, and far, far more than that. Alec had no position as a son except on his father’s humiliating terms, which made him feel hot and sick to consider. Castle Speight’s hospitality was a joke, and not one that would draw the roars of laughter now echoing around the hall.

If the only way to get to the Duke of Ilvar was through the Duchess, and the only way to get to her was through her hoarded jewels, he’d bloody do it, whatever it took. And if that made him a villain, so be it. He wasn’t going to abide by Honour thy father; he needn’t trouble himself with Thou shall not steal either.

He’d be a criminal. That was what you were when you conspired to commit a crime, even if you didn’t lift a finger yourself. A criminal like Crozier and Lane, both of whom seemed to be quite happy watching Miss Christiana sing, and laughing at the punchlines. They weren’t racked with guilt, and nor should Alec be, because this would be revenge—for loss, for a lifetime of contempt, for the life Cara should have had and the one Annabel ought to have and the strain in George’s eyes. Revenge because he’d finally accepted that he couldn’t wait for fate or natural justice or God’s will to punish the Duke and Duchess. It was down to him.

Miss Christiana had left the stage while he was lost in thought. The Lilywhite Boys were both watching him.

“You look as though you’ve decided,” Crozier said. “Last chance: if you want to forget this conversation ever happened, it can be done without consequences. After this, we aren’t open to changes of heart. If you say no now, you won’t see us again. If you say yes, we’ll be the best of friends.” He smiled. It wasn’t the most reassuring smile Alec had ever seen.

“I’ve decided. I want you to do it. To rob my father.”

Lane and Crozier exchanged a swift look. Lane nodded. “In that case, thirty seventy. In our favour.”

“Fine.”

Crozier’s brows flicked up. “Then we have a deal. Are you going to tell us why you’re doing this?”

“Well, the money—” Crozier’s eyes narrowed sceptically, as well they might. Alec scowled. “And because he’s a terrible person and he deserves something terrible to happen to him.”

“Well, that’s us,” Lane said. “We happen to people, don’t we, Jerry?”

“Better than having people happen to us. When’s the house party?”

“The grand dinner will be on the seventh of August, at Castle Speight,” Alec said.

“So we have two months.” Lane looked at Crozier, questioning. Crozier shot a glance at Alec, then lifted a single finger like a man bidding at an auction. Lane opened his hands. Crozier tilted a brow.

“All right, then,” Lane said, for all the world as though that had been a conversation. “Jerry will be your new best pal and eventual guest. You won’t be seeing me for some time after this, if all goes well. If you let Jerry down you’ll see me when you least expect it, and not pleasantly, but I’m sure that’s an unnecessary warning. Have fun, gentlemen.”

He stood, proving to be as sizeable as Alec had feared. “Catch up tomorrow, Jerry. Pyne.” He nodded at Alec, took up his hat and coat, and left.

Alec blinked after him then looked back at Crozier. “What did he mean by that, about seeing him?”

“That if you run to the police, now or later, you might be able to inform on me but Templeton will be at large and resentful. We look after one another. A certain gentleman recently put pressure on our fence—receiver of stolen goods, you know—to pay him for protection. In the ensuing discussion, Templeton dropped one of the gentleman’s henchmen out of a second-floor window.”

“Out of a window? But—was he hurt?”

“He strained his shoulder a little, what with the weight. Oh, you mean the droppee? Yes. He was.” Crozier’s smile was satanic. “Don’t play silly buggers with us. We play it better.”

Alec swallowed. “I won’t. I mean, I’ve made up my mind.”

“Good. Right, then. If I’m coming to your family event as a friend, we should strike up that friendship. Where do you like to drink?”

“What?”

“If we’re to be sufficient pals for me to attend your parents’ wedding anniversary celebrations—”

“Father’s,” Alec said. “She is not my mother.”

Crozier’s eyes hooded but he didn’t comment. “If we’re to be sufficient pals for this, I shall need to strike up acquaintance with you, enough that you will have a plausible story should things go south. So where do you drink?”

Alec’s mind went blank. Where he actually liked to drink was a quiet, unobtrusive public house called the Jack and Knave that catered for a very particular clientele. He had no intention of sharing that titbit, whatever the Lilywhite Boys said about secrets. “I go to the Stratton Club sometimes, the journalists’ club. Or the Sketch. It’s a sort of place for artists.”

“I can’t draw, and I prefer to avoid journalists for obvious reasons. Anywhere else?”

“Not often. I can’t afford much in the way of night-life. I just go to the pub, really.”

“Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes just goes to the pub?”

“Alec. And yes, actually, I do.”

“Well, that’s no bloody good,” Crozier said. “How about the Criterion Bar?”

***

ALEC WOKE UP THE NEXT morning with a sense of impending doom. He lay in his narrow bed for a brief moment, feeling the worry without being able to identify the cause, and then he remembered.

“Oh, shit,” he said aloud.

He’d done it. He’d actually done it, he’d contacted the criminals and made the devil’s bargain. He was part of a conspiracy to commit burglary. It was terrifying, and shameful, and yet he could feel that same golden thread of excitement running through the very real fear as he had the first time he’d followed a man down a dark alley with unlawful intent.

This wasn’t the same thing, but perhaps it wasn’t a mile away, because Alec didn’t believe he was truly doing anything wrong in seeking male embraces, and he also felt a deep sense of justification at what he planned to do to the Duke and Duchess. The world would not agree, and his brother and sister would not like any of what was to come, but that couldn’t be helped. The smouldering resentment he’d carried so long had caught into flame, and it would be his guiding light.

It, and the Lilywhite Boys. He was, he thought, probably glad that it was Crozier who would be his “new best pal”. Lane had made him uncomfortable, even if Alec couldn’t put his finger on why: it was something about the very charming smile he wore on his frank, open face while his eyes ran calculations. Crozier seemed a little more...Alec couldn’t think of a better word than ‘straightforward’ even though that was wrong. Unambiguously dangerous, perhaps. Templeton Lane smiled and smiled and was a villain; Crozier didn’t bother to smile.

Alec was to meet him in the Long Bar at the Criterion this evening. I’ll strike up a conversation, Crozier had said. Follow my lead. Feel free to be charmed.

That seemed an extremely unlikely outcome, and Alec had no confidence he could sham it. He’d pointed that out as politely as he could, terrified he might ruin the entire scheme before it started by going bright red and stammering. If the Lilywhite Boys were depending on Alec seeming happy and relaxed in their company, they’d be in trouble. He’d said as much, but Crozier hadn’t seemed concerned.

“Let them do their job,” he told himself, and got out of bed to face the day, propelled by one positive realisation: he would have to go through this meeting and discover more about what was expected of him before he spoke to his siblings. He was not looking forward to the latter conversation at all.

***

ALEC WORE EVENING DRESS that night. It was, after all, the Criterion Bar. He checked his appearance in the mirror and was reasonably pleased with the results. The grey among the blond hair at his temples was only perceptible under close inspection; his nose was a little marked by the spectacles he used for close work but that couldn’t be helped. He looked really rather well, considering; it helped that his evening dress was expensive and not greatly used, and that he had put on a little weight recently, filling out after the months around Cara’s death when he’d barely been able to choke down a mouthful for rage, horror, and grief. He wouldn’t stand out for good or ill, and that was all he asked.

He took an omnibus to Piccadilly, self-conscious in his smart clothing among labourers and clerks, and strolled into the Criterion Bar with all the insouciance he could muster. He hadn’t been here for a couple of years and the tiled interior was more magnificent than he remembered, the mirrors bright under the electric lights. When he’d come here before he’d probably been drunk.

He ordered a whisky and soda and took a seat at a small table, sitting back and looking casually around in the manner of a gentleman awaiting a friend. It was something he’d done hundreds of times without thinking twice, but now he was absurdly aware of himself, as though he were somehow the object of everyone’s gaze. He picked up his glass and sipped the drink in a manner that felt ludicrously wooden. If a stage actor handled a glass that clumsily Alec would have felt inclined to boo, yet he couldn’t help it; his fingers felt stiff and sausagelike.

He must look like a bad narrative painting of a man waiting for a friend. He glanced around, wondering if he’d recognise anyone, imagined he saw pity or mockery in the few looks thrown his lonely way, knocked back the whisky and soda in the hope of a bit of Dutch courage, and rashly ordered another. He was actually startled when someone leaned over his table to address him.

“I say, sir, is this seat taken?”

Alec looked up and blinked.

It was Crozier. Or at least— No, it was Crozier, but he’d shaved. The beard had been trimmed into a sharp goatee, revealing a firm jaw, the moustache thinned to a neat line. It was a striking style that gave his narrow face distinction. Mephistopheles, Alec thought again. He wore evening dress as well cut as Alec’s own, and his brown hair was sleeked back. He looked every inch the man about town with a bright red carnation in his buttonhole, and he was regarding Alec with an expression of courteous inquiry.

“Uh. Yes, certainly,” Alec managed. “I mean, no, it’s not.”

“You aren’t waiting for anyone?” Crozier suggested.

“No. Yes, actually, yes I am, I was, but he’s late. If he’s coming at all. So you might as well.” Alec attempted a casual wave at the chair opposite and nearly knocked over his glass. The last time he’d been this tongue-tied about inviting a man to take a seat, he’d been panting in a back room within the hour, hot breath in his ear. He felt a momentary wish that his lawbreaking was going in that direction now.

Not that Crozier was quite so handsome as that previous man had been. He was a little more than medium height, though his sinewy build probably made him look taller than he was. Mid-brown hair, skin that was neither interestingly pale nor notably darkened by nature or sun. Not an unattractive face, of the sort Alec would sketch for the background of an army or clubland scene, and the dark brown eyes under his sharply defined brows were striking, but the goatee would be the main thing most people remembered. If he were a politician, the caricaturists would bless him for the goatee and curse him if he shaved. If the police asked for a description of ‘the man who stole the jewels’, the goatee was what they’d get.

He was looking at Crozier as he would a subject, and, he realised, Crozier was looking back.

“I do beg your pardon. Have we met before?”

“What?” Alec had a momentary panic—he couldn’t have got it wrong, could he? This was surely the man from last night?—and then realised that Crozier must be playing his part of a stranger, in which case Alec had indeed been gaping at him in a way that merited the enquiry. “Uh, no, I don’t think so. I’m sorry, was I staring?”

“Perhaps a little.” Crozier’s mouth curved, very slightly.

“I beg your pardon. I’m an artist,” Alec explained, tongue taking over since his brain seemed not to be much use. “An illustrator for the papers. I’m always on the lookout for faces.”

“How intriguing. Specific faces, or are you a snapper-up of unconsidered features for later use?” Crozier’s brows slanted comically. “Good heavens, I trust you don’t work for the Illustrated Police News. I’d hate to hear I had the looks for a murderer.”

That was very nearly too close to the bone. Alec wasn’t sure what to say for a second; Crozier went on with barely a break. “So do you acquire faces from among your acquaintance when you aren’t drawing from life? It never occurred to me to wonder before, but now I think about those great crowd scenes and coming up with all the different people...”

“It is tempting to use friends,” Alec admitted.

“Ah, but do you use enemies? Allot some tiresome bore’s face to a pickpocket or a dubious bookmaker? I would.”

“Also tempting, but I prefer not to have actions launched against me.”

“Good point.” Crozier was smiling properly now, the amusement reaching his eyes. “I’m fascinated. Do you specialise in any particular sort of illustration? Exotic scenes, courtroom incident?”

Alec found himself answering with a peculiar sense of familiarity. He was pretending to strike up an acquaintance with a charming stranger, yet it felt awfully like he was doing just that in reality. As though he were making light conversation, taking the other man’s measure, wondering what sort of fellow he might be.

And, still, looking at him. Crozier’s most distinctive feature was the pair of remarkably mobile eyebrows which gave visual punctuation to his speech, and their dancing movement was another thing you couldn’t convey in a police sketch. They combined with his apparently habitual half smile to give Alec the impression that he was being laughed either at or with. He wasn’t confident which.

“So are the illustrated papers your primary interest?” Crozier asked. “That is, do you illustrate books, say, or otherwise exhibit?”

“I’d love to illustrate more books,” Alec said, instantly forgetting everything else. “Especially for children. This is a glorious time for illustration—the publishing techniques are improving hand over fist, and the public are coming to expect far higher standards. I’m being considered for a new edition of Shakespeare at the moment, as it happens. I don’t know if I’ll get the work, but it’s nice to be in the running.”

“I should say so. That calls for a drink.” Crozier raised his hand with the sort of calm assurance Alec could never manage, and a waiter appeared within a few seconds. “Two glasses of champagne, thank you.”

“That’s, uh—”

“My pleasure,” Crozier said. “Why books for children particularly?”

Answering that took several moments, in which the champagne came in two glittering glasses. Crozier raised his and inclined it to Alec’s. They tapped the crystal together with a delicate ting.

“To art,” Crozier said. “In all its forms.”

“To art,” Alec managed. The whisky and soda had gone to his head already; the champagne prickled against his lips.

They talked on: about Alec’s current work on the Graphic and the Illustrated, and then about newspapers and the latest scandals. Crozier volunteered a couple of stories that made Alec choke on his champagne laughing, and grinned, and waved his hand for the waiter again.

“Dinner,” Crozier said, several glasses later. It was past ten already, and Alec discovered abruptly that he was starving. “Join me? They do an adequate table here.”

That was a gross understatement. Alec followed him, floating on a cloud of champagne and conversation, through to the restaurant. There Crozier recommended the rognons de veau and the sole, which was a relief since, between the small type, lack of spectacles, and the alcohol, Alec found the menu somewhat challenging to interpret. He gulped about half a bottle of Vichy water, and found himself more able to keep up his end of the rambling conversation. This soon veered into theatrical tastes.

“Are you a great lover of the music hall?” Alec asked.

“Not much.” Crozier caught his blink, and shrugged. “My interest in Miss Christiana lies entirely in the fact that she’s a friend’s sweetheart so I was required to tell him she was wonderful in convincing detail. As an artist, you’re doubtless familiar with the obligation.”

“Oh.” Alec assimilated a friend’s sweetheart and him. “Yes, indeed, with exhibitions and so on.”

“What I do enjoy, and I dare say I should be ashamed of this, is the melodrama,” Crozier said, eyebrows sliding up to indicate his own absurdity. “I like nothing more than a thoroughly idiotic hero, a vapid heroine, a lost will, a stalwart comic man to find it, and a villain with a proper blood-chilling laugh. All of that accompanied by a suitably dramatic scene in which someone leaps off a cliff or a train is trundled across the stage to the heroine’s peril.”

Alec clapped his hands. “Yes! So long as the villain expires with suitable drama. Staggering, with a hand pressed to his brow, and a speech of repentance that explains all his machinations and tells the hero where the treasure is hidden.”

“Oh, no, not repentance. I like the villain to be villainous to the end. He should curse the hero’s goodness with his last breath and die seething in his own frustrated criminality. It’s only fair.”

“You wouldn’t consider a change of heart on your deathbed?”

“No decent villain dies in bed,” Crozier pointed out. “He expires in the toils of his own plot, on the steps of his grand house or run through by the hero’s blade. And no, certainly not. If I were inclined to repentance, and I’m not, I’d want to start now. To do it on one’s deathbed is to be sorry because one has been caught, and that surely doesn’t count.”

“You’re not inclined to repentance?” Alec repeated. “What, ever?”

“Never.” Crozier’s eyes glimmered dark in the electric light and the glitter of glass and silverware and mirrors. “I’m not sorry.”

“For what?”

“Anything.” Crozier tilted his head, eyes hooding slightly, gaze roaming over Alec’s face. “Except missed opportunities. I regret those, but that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

“Mmm.” Alec didn’t want to think about his own missed opportunities now, the what-ifs and if-onlies. “I don’t suppose you have many of those, do you?”

Crozier’s smile widened a fraction. It looked a little bit dangerous, and it made Alec’s toes curl delightfully. “Not many. They’re such a waste. And so often what one wants is there for the taking, if one only makes the effort to reach for it.”

Alec swallowed. He wondered, very much wondered, if he dared inch his foot forward and nudge Crozier’s shoe with his own, to see how he reacted. He had an idea that he oughtn’t, and for a moment couldn’t quite remember why.

Oh, yes. It was because Crozier was a thief, and this—this dinner, this companionship, the smile in his eyes—was all a lie.

The thought struck harder than it should have. He didn’t say anything, but something changed in Crozier’s expression, his eyes losing their laughter, as if he’d read something on Alec’s face that he didn’t like. It occurred to Alec that his companion might in fact look rather ugly in some lights, or in some moods.

“In any case,” Crozier said. “We’ve gone on rather late, haven’t we?” He summoned the bill, again with that magical flick of his fingers, and they sat in a silence that was all the more notable because conversation had been so easy. Alec had a heavy feeling in his stomach that wasn't only the drink. He was unpleasantly aware that he’d be in a serious hole if he’d somehow failed a test and was asked to pay his share.

He wasn’t. Crozier pulled out a well-stuffed wallet as the bill was produced, left what must have been a generous pourboire given the waiter’s bow, and nodded to Alec. “Come on, old chap, let’s see you home. I think you’re ready to call it a night, aren’t you?”

Alec very much was. The drink caught up with him as he stood, and he felt Crozier’s steadying hand under his elbow, firm and warm. “Let’s get you in a cab. I shall pop in and see how you’re getting on tomorrow.”

He steered Alec outside as he spoke, past the doorman. The cool night air felt like a bucket of water to the face, clearing his head as Crozier summoned a hansom cab and gave the man the address, then held the door open for Alec. “An absolute pleasure making your acquaintance. I’ll see you later.”

“Yes, see you tomorrow, old man,” Alec managed, and clambered in. The door slammed, the cab lurched off, and he shut his eyes and concentrated on his breathing.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. How had he managed to forget what he was there for? What sort of bloody fool was he? Suppose he’d actually nudged Crozier’s foot or made his interest clear? Christ, suppose Crozier had detected it anyway, and had been tempting him to reveal himself? The jewel thief, the unrepentant criminal would have had Alec in the palm of his hand from then on.

Or suppose Crozier had actually been flirting with him. Suppose he’d decided Alec was there for the taking, and he’d been the one to nudge Alec’s foot, and they’d finished the night in one of Piccadilly’s dark alleys, as could so very nearly have happened. Alec put his hands over his face and groaned aloud.

When he arrived home, the cabbie told him the fare had been paid already, at which point Alec realised that he’d never told Crozier his address, but the man had known it anyway.

He did not sleep well that night.

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