His Improper Lady

Chapter 1

 

     There was a screech somewhere in the building below him. It wasn’t loud, but it was enough to awaken Tom in his flat on the top floor. He was a light sleeper, a habit engrained in him from a childhood in which not letting down your guard was what kept you alive. He lay still for a moment, listening. He knew this building in and out. He’d lived here for a year, ever since Con married, and he’d spent his days in the agency office downstairs for almost fifteen years. He knew each creak or pop; normal noises wouldn’t have brought him out of his sleep.

     More than that, he knew the feel of the empty silence of the building at night. And right now something felt wrong. He swung out of bed and pulled on his trousers, grabbing the shirt from the back of the chair as he crossed the room to the door. He eased it open and listened. Was that a thump?  It wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to try to break into one of the shops on the ground floor, and while it wasn’t part of the bargain for the top floor flat, he felt an obligation to protect the building. It was, after all, the closest thing Tom had ever had to a home.

    He unhooked the ring of keys to the building, curling his hand around them to prevent their clinking together, and moved noiselessly to the staircase. He started down just as quietly, sidestepping the board that creaked. Stealth, too, came naturally to him.

There. Now, that was a thump; he was sure of it. He took the rest of the flight of stairs in a rush and emerged next to Alex’s office. It was dark and silent, and he turned to look down the dark hallway.

     He’d expected any intruder to be on the floor below, where the chemist and watchmaker had their shops, but it was the office at the other end of this corridor where a faint light crept out beneath the door. The office of Moreland & Quick. His office. He took off at a run. The doorknob wouldn’t turn, the door still locked, and he ate up precious seconds fitting the key into the slot.

     By the time he opened the door, the light had been doused, and a dark figure was climbing out the window.  With something like a growl, Tom tore across the room and grabbed the intruder’s arm with both hands, yanking him back inside. They toppled backward and landed on the floor. The thief jumped up more quickly than he, but Tom wrapped an arm around the man’s calves and jerked, and the intruder crashed back to the floor on his knees.

     The rose together, wrestling, but his opponent was both smaller and less strong, and Tom was able to wrap his arms around him, pinning the man’s arms to his sides. Surprisingly, a tantalizing perfume clung to the intruder. Even stranger, the man was wearing, not trousers and shirt, but some odd sort of clothes that clung to every curve. And there were definitely curves. Soft, inviting curves.

The thief was a woman.

     Shocked, Tom loosened his hold, and the thief took advantage of it. Stamping on his bare foot, she shoved her elbow into his stomach, and twisted away. She was out the window in an instant. Tom hurled himself forward, reaching out the window for her, but his hand grasped only air.

     The small dark figure was hurrying away from him along the narrow ledge of stone that ran beneath the windows. Her path was no wider than a man’s hand, but she crossed it with quick assurance, one hand steadying her against the brick wall. What the devil was she going to do when she reached the end?

     His question was answered she when she jumped off the ledge and grabbed the iron bar that held the sign above the shops. Her momentum made her swing, and incredibly she seemed to be pumping with her legs to increase the momentum as she worked her way a little farther out on the bar.

    After another couple of hard swings, she simply launched herself out into space. Tom’s heart went into his throat as she flew through the air and landed with a roll on the metal awning of the building that abutted his own. There the woman slid down the angled awning, turning as she went. At the bottom of the awning, she clung to its frame for an instant to break her speed, then dropped lightly to the ground.

     Grabbing a bundle that lay neatly folded beside the building, she darted up the street. The bundle, it seemed, was a cloak, for she shook it out and flung it around her shoulders while she ran. Tom  watched in stunned amazement as she disappeared into the night.