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She looked like a ragged, storm-drenched urchin, but from the moment Serena Smyth appeared on his Seattle doorstep, Richard Patrick Merlin recognized the spark behind her green eyes. Serena had crossed a country to find him, guided by her determination to become a master wizard. She knew he could be her teacher—but she never expected the charismatic, seductive power that was Merlin's. Nor had she dreamed of the fire he ignited in her body and soul, a flame that burned even hotter than the powerful talent she possessed but did not yet understand. Their love forbidden by an ancient law, Serena and Richard will take a desperate gamble and travel to a long-lost world to change the history that threatens to separate them. But they risk being torn apart forever, destroyed by a cursed land...and their own fierce desires.
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Elusive Dawn

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Do They Know I'm Running?

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[bookmark: _Toc63952714][bookmark: _Toc62727331]Books by Kay Hooper

Books By Kay Hooper
Lady Thief (1981)
Larger Than Life (1986)
Rafe, the Maverick (10-1986)
Hagan Series
--1 Raven on the Wing (1987)
--2 Rafferty’s Wife (1987)
--3 Zach’s Law (1987)
--4 The Fall of Lucas Kendrick (1987)
--5 Unmasking Kelsey (1988)
--6 Outlaw Derek (1988)
--8 Captain’s Paradise (1998)
--10 Aces High (1989)
In Serena's Web (1987)
Once Upon a Time
--1 Golden Threads
--2 The Glass Shoe (1989)
--3 What Dreams May Come
--4 Through the Looking Glass (1990)
--5 The Lady and the Lion
The Matchmaker (05-1991)
The Haviland Touch (05-1991)
The Wizard of Seattle (1993)
Men of Mysteries Past
--1 The Touch of Max (1993)
--2 Hunting the Wolfe (1993)
--3 The Trouble with Jared (1993)
--4 All for Quinn (1993)
Amanda (1995)
After Caroline (1997)
Finding Laura (1997)
Haunting Rachel (1998)
Enemy Mine
Bishop Series
--Shadow Trilogy

--Evil Trilogy

--Fear Trilogy

Quinn Series
--1 Once A Thief (2002)
--2 Always A Thief (2003)

[bookmark: adc][bookmark: _Toc143724421][bookmark: _Toc93605712]Books By Kay Hooper
The Bishop Trilogies 
1 Stealing Shadows 08-2000
2 Hiding in the Shadows 10-03-2000
3 Out of the Shadows 10-31-2000
1 Touching Evil 08-2001
2 Whisper of Evil 06-2002
3 Sense of Evil 06-2003 (paperback)
1 Hunting Fear 08-2004
2 Chill of Fear 07-2005
3 Sleeping With Fear 07-2006
The Quinn Novels 
1 Once a Thief 10-2002
2 Always a Thief 06-2003
3 Lady Thief 03-2005
Romantic Suspense 
Amanda 08-1996
After Caroline 09-1997
Finding Laura 07-1998
Haunting Rachel 09-1999
Classic Fantasy and Romance 
On Wings of Magic 12-1994
The Wizard of Seattle 05-1993
My Guardian Angel (anthology) 01-1997
Yours to Keep (anthology) 10-1999
The Haviland Touch SIM #338 05-1991

[bookmark: _Toc143724422]Lady Thief (1981)
Candlelight Regency 665

Chapter One
Dominic Vernon Ware, Duke of Spencer, swayed easily in the traveling coach, making no attempt to hold to the strap even when the wheels struck a bad rut in the road. He was deep in t; hought, remembering what one of his friends in the War Office had told him.
Richard Standen's face had been grave, his eyes worried. "I just don't know what to make of it, Nick. Vital papers turn up in the wrong files or, worse yet, are simply found lying on someone's desk. Last week an entire bundle of military papers was left on the doorstep of the Office—and no one knows how long they'd been missing. The next day, Conover was found near the coast; he'd been shot."
"Any speculation?"
"Of course. The most popular idea seems to be that Conover was a spy trying to get the papers to France, and that the Cat stopped him and returned the papers to us."
"The Cat? But the Cat is a thief."
"True. She is also something of a legend. After all, how many female highwaymen have there been?"
"You have a point. What do you think, Richard? Do you believe the Cat is trying, in a rather unorthodox manner, to locate and eliminate spies?"
Standen shook his head, puzzled. "There's something deuced odd about the woman, that much I'm sure of. She seems more concerned with jewelry than money, and yet . . . Nick, do you remember how old Farrell ranted and raved a few weeks ago about how she took his signet ring?" As Spencer nodded, he continued. "I saw him the other day, and he was wearing that ring— not a copy, but that very ring. When I questioned him, he said that he had misplaced it."
"Perhaps he did."
"Nick, that ring hasn't been off his finger for more than thirty years. No, I believe the Cat took it from him—and I believe that she returned it to him."
Spencer frowned. "But, why?"
"That, my friend, is the question—why?"
Spencer was brought abruptly back to the present as his traveling coach ground to a shuddering halt. There was an ominous silence, and he began to reach for the pistol that he kept in the coach. But before his hand touched the handle of the gun, he changed his mind. With a faint smile on his lean face, he folded his arms and settled back in his seat.
The door of the coach was suddenly flung open, and a calm feminine voice said, "Step out of the coach, if you please—and don't do anything foolish."
Spencer slowly climbed from the coach, realizing that his team was perfectly quiet and that his coachman sat rigidly in the box, eyes fixed on the imposing figure of the Cat's henchman. The large man was masked and hooded, and held two pistols in his capable hands—one pointed at the coachman, one at the duke.
Spencer straightened and turned his gaze to the woman sitting at ease on the back of a huge, powerful black stallion. Dressed like a man, she was outfitted entirely in black and, like her cohort, wore a black hood and mask. She seemed a figure carved from the night, save for her strange eyes, which glittered like the eyes of a wild animal. One black-gloved hand held a pistol pointed squarely at the duke's heart.
The stallion stamped one hoof suddenly, his eyes glaring redly, and the duke wondered which was wilder—the woman or the beast she rode. "So," he murmured, "you are the Cat."
"Indeed." Her voice was cool and mocking. "And you are His Grace, the Duke of Spencer." A small leather pouch was tossed to land at his feet. "Your money and jewelry, if you please. And, Your Grace—don't try to be a hero. My silent friend there would like nothing better than to shoot you where you stand."
The duke smiled and slowly bent to pick up the bag. He heard the large man shift slightly in his saddle, and knew that both guns were trained on him. As he began to empty his pockets, he casually remarked, "I count my life worth more than a few trinkets—tell your silent friend to relax."
A soft chuckle came from the Cat. "I felt sure that you were a reasonable man." She watched as he deposited his money and jewelry into the pouch, and then held out one black-gloved hand. Carefully, the duke tossed the pouch to her, and watched it disappear beneath her cloak.
At that moment, the moon came out from behind the clouds, and he felt curiously light-headed as he saw clearly the strange wildness in the Cat's vivid eyes. He was conscious of his heart thudding in his chest, and had to force himself to concentrate on what she was saying.
"You have friends in the War Office, do you not?"
She smiled coldly. "Tell your friends to look within their ranks for the spy. That is where he'll be—unless I find him first." With that, she wheeled her horse and disappeared into the forest, her henchman at her heels.
Spencer stared after her, his mind bemused by her eyes and by her words.
"Your Grace?" The coachman sounded hesitant. "I beg pardon, Your Grace, but it all happened so fast." He fought to control the suddenly restless horses, glancing worriedly at the silent duke.
The duke stirred slightly. "Never mind, Owens. There was nothing you could have done."
"It were the queerest thing," Owens muttered. "That black devil jumped out of the woods with nary a sound. Stood right in our path, he did, with fire in his eyes. The grays stopped like they'd run into a wall—an' stood there as calm as you please. It weren't natural. Your Grace, them standing so quietlike when they're generally wild as be-damned. That black devil bewitched 'em; or that female on his back did."
Spencer prepared to climb into the coach, a faint smile on his face. "So you think they were bewitched, do you? I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you that there was nothing unreal or unnatural about either the girl or the horse." He wondered absently if he believed his own words.
Staunchly, Owens responded,  "Talk till doomsday, Your Grace, I still say the pair of 'em weren't spawned on this earth. Demons, that's what they were. Why, that black devil did just what she wanted him to—and she never picked up the reins." "Which only proves that she is an excellent horsewoman." "Proves she's a witch—and that black devil's her familiar." Spencer sighed. "I can see that your mind is made up. Let us be on our way—before you conjure up Satan himself." He climbed into the coach, leaving Owens to stare about nervously.
Owens allowed the fretful horses to continue on their way. The duke could think what he liked—Owens could recognize a demon when one appeared beneath his very nose. He shivered as he recalled the red glare in the horse's eyes, and the wild glitter in the eyes of the woman. With another nervous glance at the dark, silent woods, Owens urged the team on.
The huge black stallion galloped swiftly through the forest, weaving easily between the trees as he responded to the light hand on his reins. After nearly an hour's ride, he reluctantly obeyed a signal to halt. They stood at the edge of the forest as the woman on his back listened tensely for any sound of pursuit. After a moment, she urged the horse toward a small inn just across the road from the woods.
The two riders dismounted at the rear of the inn. The large man reached for the stallion's reins, dodging a lashing foreleg. "Here," he grunted, "I'll take 'im—you go on inside. Have a care—there may be strangers about." He led the horses off into the darkness.
The woman slipped silently through the back door of the inn. The door opened into a kitchen, where an older woman sat at a table, her face turned anxiously toward the door. Her eyes softened as she saw the black-clad figure. With a relieved sigh, she rose and turned up the lamp on the table. "There you are, dearie! Had me worried—you've been gone for hours."
The Cat drew off her hood, and then her cloak, revealing a slender young woman with raven hair and strange golden eyes. Smiling, she said, "There's no need to worry about us, Annie— we came off without a scratch! John's putting the horses away."
Annie clucked anxiously. "I hope you know what you're doing, dearie. That no-good brother of mine should be shot for letting you ride all over the place, dressed like a man and shooting at people!"
"Hush, Annie." The younger woman sat down at the table, her eyes bright. "You know how John tried to talk me out of this. I won't have you abusing him. He only rides with me so he can watch over me."
Annie sat down across from the Cat, her plump face worried. "Missy, why don't you stop this? It's too dangerous—and you are little more than a babe."
The Cat gestured impatiently. "Annie, I'll stop when I find the talisman ring and not before."
At that moment, the door opened and the large man came in. He pulled the hood from his head and looked inquiringly at the Cat. "Did the duke have the ring?"
Annie let out a scandalized gasp. "Oh, mercy! You never robbed a duke! John, what were you thinkin' of?"
John grunted and lowered his considerable weight into a chair. "T'weren't me that picked the duke—missy did."
"You should have stopped her, John. "
John's weathered face creased in a wry smile. "I never could stop her when she got some fool notion into her head. Trouble with her is, she was never broke to bridle. Wild as be-damned, she is."
"Will you two please stop talking about me as if I weren't here." She pulled the leather pouch from her belt and upended it on the table. Aside from a rather large amount of gold coins, only a tie pin and an emerald signet ring rolled from the bag. She smiled wearily. "Well, Spencer doesn't have it. Or, if he does, he doesn't carry it with him."
John gave the Cat a thoughtful glance. "A right knowing one, the duke—unless I miss my guess," he said slowly. "You'd best stay out of his way, missy."
The young woman got to her feet, smiling. "I fully intend to stay away from him, John. After all, what chance have I to meet a duke way out here in the country? You know Sir George rarely allows me to attend any of the local balls—and a Season in London is out of the question. It isn't very likely that I will see His Grace again." She swung her cloak about her shoulders and picked up the hood. "Put the money and jewelry in a safe place, John." As he turned to go, John spoke again.
"You'll see the duke when you take his jewelry back to him."
She turned back to stare at his expressionless face. "So I will."
"Be careful, missy. If anybody learns the truth, it'll be the duke."
"John, you must be getting old." She smiled and added, "You worry too much." With that, she slipped silently from the inn.
Annie stared after her. "John, why didn't you go with her? It's an hour's ride to the manor—she shouldn't be out there all alone."
John sat back and regarded his sister with a tolerant smile. "She'd only lose me in the woods. She doesn't like to be followed."
"But, John—"
"Oh, woman, never mind. Why do you think they call her the Cat? She always lands on her feet."
The Cat drew her weary mare to a stop and gazed at the dark windows of the large manor house. It was a beautiful old house, dating back several generations. Surrounded by formal gardens, it sprawled gracefully at the edge of a large game preserve. Many generations of Courtenays had lived and died beneath its roof, and the girl felt a surge of rage as she thought of the man who now ruled the manor with a despotic hand.
With a smothered and very unladylike curse, she urged her horse toward the stables, vowing silently to throw Sir George out the moment she turned twenty-one. Her father had left the house, along with the majority of his fortune, to his only daughter. Unfortunately, he had chosen his neighbor—Sir George Ross—to be her trustee. A scant two years after her husband's death, Mrs. Courtenay had become Lady Ross. Sir George had it all now. For another year.
Once inside the stables, the girl quietly rubbed the mare down, erasing all traces of the midnight ride. With a silence born of long practice, she made her way through the gardens to the house. Warily, she moved to the west wing, where a large tree grew beneath her bedroom window. In moments, she had climbed the tree as easily as a boy. She slipped through the open window and carefully closed it behind her. Only then did she heave an unconscious sigh of relief.
She drew off the black hood and flung it onto the bed, her movements swift and restless. She lit the lamp on the bedstand before picking it up and carrying it to the dressing table. For a long moment she stared fixedly into the gilded mirror above the table.
A beautiful, raven-haired, golden-eyed young woman stared back. The shining black hair was drawn away from her face and wound in a braided coronet about her head, exposing the delicate bones of her face. Her nose was small and straight, and the gently curved lips seemed more inclined to a smile than a frown.
But the most outstanding feature of all was the golden eyes. They were enormous, with long, curling lashes. Catlike, they had a slight upward slant. There was no serenity in their golden depths, only wild, restless emotion.
She continued to stare into the mirror, remembering with a bittersweet pang how her father had always teased her about her eyes. He had told her that one day she would meet a man who would calm her restless spirit and tame the wildness in her soul. She had flung back her head and told her father that no man would ever master her.
Her father had smiled and gently touched her cheek. "He won't master you, kitten. If he's smart, he'll just love you." His calm golden eyes had been warm with love. "And if you love him, you'll find peace of mind."
She leaned against the dressing table and stared down at her clenched fists. "I haven't found him yet, Papa," she whispered. "I don't think he exists. Oh, Papa, why did you have to die? Everything would have been so different." For a long time, she stood silent, telling herself fiercely that she wouldn't cry. She could only remember crying once, years ago, when her father had died. Never before, never since.
Suddenly, there was a soft knock at the door. She stiffened, her heart thundering in her ears.
"Jenny?" It was almost a whisper.
Jenny relaxed and went to open the door. A slender wraith in a pale pink dressing gown slipped through the doorway. A stray blond curl had escaped from her nightcap, and her blue eyes were wide with fright. "Oh, Jenny," she whispered breathlessly, "Father wanted to see you, but I knew that you were riding tonight, so I told him that you had a headache. He was furious!"
Jenny went to turn up the lamp and then turned to face her stepsister, her expression grim. "Was he drinking, Meg?"
Meg sat down weakly on the bed. "Oh, yes. He was ranting and raving. Jenny, he said that you had refused the Earl of Stoven! He was furious!"
Jenny's wild eyes darkened with rage. "I don't care how angry he was. I will not marry that pompous, self-opinionated ass." He has a red face and sweaty hands; he's fifty if he's a day, and fat as a pig besides." She began to pace restlessly around the room. "Your father only wants me to marry Stoven because he's rich. Well, he can just forget it. I won't marry him."
"But, Jenny—" Meg hesitated. "He—he won't live forever! You could have a fine house and beautiful clothes, and you could spend the Season in London."
"I can't, Meg."
"But, why? Oh, Jenny—at least you could get away from Father."
Jenny turned to Meg, her eyes blazing. But, when she saw the innocence in her stepsister's eyes, her anger melted. Gently, she said, "Honey, I can't. You don't understand—I can't bear to have the man touch me."
Meg's face pinkened. "Oh! You—you mean the way he holds your hand and puts his arm round your waist?"
Jenny managed to smile faintly as she sat down beside Meg. "There is a little more to it than that. A husband and wife are— intimate. They sleep in the same bed and they—hold and touch one another."
Meg went scarlet suddenly. In a small voice, she said, "You mean when they make a baby?"
"Yes. I just couldn't bear to let Stoven touch me that way. The thought of it makes me ill."
"Jenny, will I—will I feel that way about the man I marry?"
"Oh, my dear, of course not. If you love him, you'll want to be close to him."
Meg's blue eyes widened in sudden fright. "Oh, Jenny—what if he makes me marry Stoven?"
Jenny gave her stepsister a gentle hug. "You're only sixteen— not even your father is monster enough to marry you to a man like Stoven."
"I hope you're right."
"I'm sure I am. Meg, anytime your father tries to make you do anything against your will, just tell me. I'll stop him, or get you away from here."
Meg smiled. "I know. You've always protected me from Father's temper." Her smile died as she looked gravely at her stepsister. "But, Jenny—who will protect you?"
Jenny stood up abruptly. "It's late. You had better get to bed."
Meg slowly got to her feet, blue eyes concerned. "You didn't answer my question, Jenny."
Jenny smiled brilliantly. "I'll protect myself. I always have and I always will."
Meg suddenly looked older than her sixteen years. "Jenny, you can't stand alone forever. You need someone. Someone big and strong. You need someone to rely on occasionally."
"Well, if that's so," Jenny responded lightly, "then I think I met him tonight."
Eagerly, Meg asked, "Who? Jenny, who is he?"
"The Duke of Spencer. He's tall and strong—he's even handsome."
"A duke. Just think—you could be a duchess." She sighed rapturously. "It's like a fairy story."
Jenny, no stranger to her stepsister's romantic nature, smiled wryly. "Don't get your hopes up, Meg. To Spencer, I'm just a strange woman in a black mask, a woman wanted by the Runners, a woman who robbed him." Rather grimly, she went on. "I can't let Spencer—or anyone else—find out who I am. If the Runners catch me, I'll hang."
Meg went white. "No. Oh, Jenny, please don't go out anymore."
Seeing the fear in Meg's eyes, Jenny hastily spoke. "Now, why do you thing they call me the Cat? I have nine lives. Don't worry about me, Meg—they'll never catch me."
A sob escaped Meg. "I never thought how—how dangerous it is! It seemed so romantic—like a fairy tale. But, now . . . Jenny, even if they don't catch you, you could be shot. Please, please don't go out anymore."
Jenny shook her head. "Meg, I can't stop. Don't you see that it's the only way I can hope to find my father's murderer?"
"But, Jenny—"
"Hush. I'll be fine—really. Only you, John, and Annie know who the Cat really is. And that's the way it will stay." She led Meg to the door. "Now, you go to bed and get some sleep."
Meg paused in the open doorway and whispered, "Father— what if he beats you?"
"I'll just stay out of his way until he calms down. Good night, Meg."
"'Night, Jenny." She silently made her way toward her own bedroom.
Jenny closed the door and leaned against it wearily. After a moment she straightened and prepared for bed. She undressed and donned her nightgown, then sat before her dressing table. Unconsciously avoiding her mirrored image, she took down her hair and began to brush the long silken mass that hung below her waist.
She hid her masculine clothes in the locked chest she had had since childhood. After blowing out the lamp, she crawled into bed. She lay sleepless until dawn, her ears echoing with the memory of a deep, resonant voice.

Chapter Two
Sir George Ross had never been noted as an even-tempered  man. Although sympathetic voices maintained that he had suffered a severe disappointment in his youth, those who knew him well could say, with complete honesty, that Sir George was a hard-drinking, evil-tempered man who kept his wife in a state of cowered obedience and terrified his daughter. As for his stepdaughter, no one was quite sure what her feelings were toward her mother's second husband.
Miss Jenny was a lovely young woman of twenty, with cool manners and a quiet, well-bred voice. She bore no resemblance to her mother, either in looks or temperament; Lady Ross was a faded woman with a fluttery manner and nervous eyes.
It was Miss Jenny, rather than her mother, who tended the sick and injured among Sir George's tenants. It was she who interceded, on the tenants' behalf, whenever Sir George's harshness escaped the bounds of reason. It was she who kept the manor running on an even keel. Many of the numerous servants had been heard to say that they would not remain above a day in the employ of Sir George were it not for Miss Jenny.
The local gentry had mixed emotions regarding Jennifer Courtenay. The gentlemen all said that she was an uncommon beauty and a bruising rider; their ladies agreed that she was lovely, and added that she did not give herself airs or put herself forward unbecomingly; and all the young bucks of the district had been at one time or another, hopelessly in love with her.
But no one had been able to penetrate the shell she had erected about herself since her father's suicide eight years before. She was always calm, always polite. And yet, more than one person had become very uneasy after gazing into the strange wildness of her golden eyes. She was an enigma.
 Jenny had managed to avoid her stepfather for the better part of the day. She had no wish for a confrontation. She was still rather weary, and lacked both the strength and serenity to deal with one of Sir George's famous—or infamous—rages.
She was slipping quietly past Sir George's study, her arms full of linen, when she suddenly found herself jerked into the room. The linen went flying in all directions, and it cost her a severe inner struggle to keep from swearing.
She turned to see her stepfather leaning against the door, his clothes mussed and wrinkled, his eyes red-rimmed from drink and lack of sleep.
"Was there something you wanted, Sir George?" Her voice was cool and calm.
"You're damn right there's something I want," Sir George answered harshly. "I want to know why you refused Stoven."
Jenny clasped her hands before her and regarded him expressionlessly. "I have no wish to marry a man who is old enough to be my father. There are other reasons, of course, but that one will suffice."
Sir George stepped forward, swaying slightly. "You fool. He's rich."
"I have no need of a wealthy husband."
"You need what I say you need! And I say that you will marry Stoven!"
Jenny carefully gauged his mood and knew from the menace in his eyes that he would fly into a rage no matter what she said. "I will not marry Stoven. I will not, in fact, marry anyone while I remain beneath your guardianship." She smiled coldly. "You will get nothing from me, Sir George. You will not benefit from marriage settlements, or anything else."
Sir George clenched his fists, his face going red with fury. "You'll marry him!" he bellowed. "I'll not stand for any more of this willful disobedience! You'll do as I say!" He took another step forward. "When I get through with you, miss, you'll be glad to marry Stoven." Suddenly, his hand lashed out to strike her across the face.
It was a heavy blow, with the entire weight of his arm behind it, and Jenny reeled. Her eyes watered from the pain, and she reached up a shaking hand to wipe a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. She raised her eyes just as Sir George drew back for another blow, and something in her gaze stayed his hand.
Sir George stared into the deadly fury of her strange eyes and felt a chill run down his spine. He had never before seen such a look of hatred in her eyes.
In a voice devoid of all human emotion, she said, "I won't stand for any more of this from you. The next time you lay a hand on me, on Meg, or on my mother—I'll kill you."
Sir George's hand fell to his side and he let out a laugh which, even to his own ears, sounded strained. "You wouldn't dare. You don't have the stomach to kill a man."
"Would you care to bet your life on that, Sir George?" She smiled coldly. "I am a much better shot than you are. And I mean what I say. I will kill you."
Sir George forced another laugh. "I'll get you out of my hair one way or another. If I have to, I'll have you arrested for threatening my life. What do you say about that, miss?"
"I say, Sir George, that you would be the laughing stock of England if word got out that you were afraid of a mere girl— and your stepdaughter at that. No, you won't have me arrested. Who would believe you?" Her voice was mocking. "But you and I know the truth. And we both know that I mean what I say."
She moved toward the door, scorn in her eyes. "Stay away from me—or you'll be sorry."
Sir George found himself almost nervously moving out of her path. He watched her leave the room, his brow dark with anger. One of these days, he thought, I'm going to give that young lady exactly what she deserves. On that dark thought, he flung himself into a chair and splashed whiskey into his glass.
Jenny slowly climbed the stairs, one hand against her bruised cheek. Her expressionless face concealed a rage as great as any she had ever experienced. Not even the memory of her father's death had the power to arouse such fury in her.
She halted by her mother's door and, after a moment, knocked softly and went in. Her mother was reclining in a lounge chair by the window, bundled in shawls and blankets, and holding her smelling salts in one slender hand.
Lady Ross looked up as her daughter entered. In a fretful voice, she said, "Jenny, you know how I hate to be disturbed. I need my rest."
"Mama," said Jenny, ignoring the petulant voice, "I cannot remain in this house."
Lady Ross frowned. "What nonsense is this?"
Jenny lowered her hand, revealing the bruised cheek. "If I stay, Mama," she said quietly, "you'll be widowed for the second time."
"Oh, Jenny," her mother murmured, "what have you done?"
"I? What have I done? Mama, how can you ask such a question? When did he ever need a reason to strike me?"
"You must have done something to cause your father ..."
"That man is not my father. Mama, how can you continue to defend him? He treats you despicably."
"Jenny, he's my husband. For heaven's sake ..."
"He's an animal. He doesn't deserve your loyalty. Mama, I mean what I say. If he touches me again, I swear I'll kill him."
Lady Ross sighed tiredly. "Stay away from him, Jenny. When this year is up, you will be your own mistress. Until then, just stay out of his way."
Jenny studied her mother thoughtfully. "You didn't seem at all surprised when I threatened to kill him. Why, Mama?"
"Because," Lady Ross replied with a twisted smile, "you are exactly like your father was—strong enough to do whatever you feel you have to do."
"You never talk about Papa."
"I do not want to think about him. He killed himself, Jenny. Do you think I want to remember that night? I do not! All the good memories of our life, our years together, were wiped away by what happened that night."
"Mama, he didn't kill himself. I was there—I saw him murdered."
Lady Ross shook her head wearily. "You were only a child, Jenny. You saw what you wanted to see."
"I didn't want to see him murdered."
"You didn't want to see him kill himself."
"Mama—" Jenny sighed in defeat. "Never mind. You refuse to believe me, no matter what I say." Turning to go, she continued quietly, "But one day—one day you'll believe me." She left the room as Lady Ross watched with troubled eyes.
Meg rode through the woods, giving her horse his head. She didn't really feel like riding, but it was the only way she could escape from the manor. Sir George was still drinking and Meg was afraid to be near him. She was terrified that he would try to force her to marry Stoven—no matter what Jenny said.
She thought of Jenny and sighed. Meg loved her stepsister; she couldn't bear it if anything happened to her.
Deep in her reflections, Meg failed to notice that she had left the woods and was now crossing a field near the road. She also failed to notice a hare in her path. The tiny creature, frightened by the huge horse, darted toward the woods. Meg's gelding shied violently, and she was thrown to the ground.
The next few moments were a confusing blur to Meg. Finding herself suddenly on the ground was enough of a shock, but then, to look up and see a large chestnut bearing down on her with a blond-haired gentleman on its back was too much. She fainted.
Moments later she came to, and gazed up at a strange face with concerned deep blue eyes. With a murmur of confusion, Meg sat up hurriedly. "Oh! What happened?"
The gentleman sat back on his heels and continued to look concerned. "You were thrown from your horse. Are you all right?" His voice was deep.
Meg smiled shyly, feeling oddly breathless.
"Oh, yes. I'm fine—really. But why did my horse shy?"
The gentleman smiled and nodded toward the woods. "I believe there is the culprit."
She gazed in the direction he indicated and saw a small brown rabbit looking at them inquisitively. "Well! I never thought that Prince would be so timid as to be frightened by a hare."
"Perhaps he was startled." The gentleman rose to his feet and offered her a hand.
As she allowed him to help her to rise, Meg thought what a handsome gentleman he was, and wondered why she had never seen him before.
Retaining her hand, the gentleman bowed low over it. "Robert Collins—at your service, ma'am."
She blushed and smiled. "I'm Meg—Margaret Ross."
Robert gazed down at her with a bemused smile. "Are you certain that you are all right, Miss Meg?"
"Oh, yes. I've taken tumbles before, you know." She made no move to withdraw her hand from his grasp. Starry-eyed, she smiled up at him and said. "Do you live around here? I've never seen you before."
"I am visiting a friend. I live in London."
"London. Oh, how I envy you. I would like, of all things, to live in London."
"Why? It's nothing special, you know."
"It is. All the things to do and places to go. The parties and balls—and the theater!"
He grinned at her, amused by her enraptured voice. "London is cold and wet in the winter, and hot and dusty in the summer. The traffic is terrible and the busybodies are worse." He sighed dramatically. "Society watches your every move; if you step out of line, you're ostracized for life."
"Oh." Meg looked sympathetic. "Did that happen to you?" She blushed suddenly. "I'm sorry. That's none of my business."
He chuckled. "That's all right. Actually, my father was the bounder. He gambled away most of his fortune and left me without a feather to fly with."
"How terrible for you."
"Not really." He chuckled again. "I do well enough. But society has a long memory, so I receive the blame for my father's sins."
She frowned. "That doesn't seem fair."
"Society never claimed to be fair. In any case, it's rather fun to be considered a bad sort. At least the matchmaking mamas don't cluster round me like bees to a honey pot."
"Then—then you're not married?"
"No, but don't let that frighten you. I promise I won't bite you."
She laughed. "How absurd you are."
He smiled at her. "I made you laugh, anyway—and a very pretty laugh it was."
She blushed slightly. "Well, no matter what you say about London, I'd love to go there."
"Why don't you? It's only about forty miles or so."
Her face fell. "I—I can't. My father won't allow it." She pulled her hand from his grasp and turned toward her patiently waiting horse.
Robert stepped forward. "Wait, I'm sorry—I didn't mean to upset you."
Meg reached for her horse's reins and then smiled at the concerned young man. "You didn't upset me. But it's late and I really must go home."
"May I call on you?"
"Oh, I—my father wouldn't allow it," she said in a low voice.
Robert frowned. "But I must see you again."
Meg looked up at him shyly, her cheeks rosy. "I—I could meet you someplace."
He shook his head, a spark of anger in his eyes. "It wouldn't be right. I want to court you properly."
"Oh, Robert, I want the same thing. But Papa—he'd be furious. He'd send me away."
Neither of them was aware of the exact moment that their relationship had changed from mere acquaintance into something deeper; they only knew that it had changed.
Robert reached out to take her had. "There must be some way of convincing your father to allow me to call on you."
She smiled suddenly. "I know. I'll ask Jenny—she'll help us."
"My stepsister. She's the only one who isn't afraid of Papa. I know she'll help us."
"Do you think she can persuade your father to allow me to call?"
"If anyone can, it will be Jenny," Meg laughed and said softly, "and if she can't talk him into it, she'll find some way of gaining his permission."
Robert smiled wryly. "She sounds like quite a lady."
Meg glowed. "She is."
"Will she be willing to help us? She may not approve of me."
"Oh, yes, she'll help us. I'll ask her and then we can meet here tomorrow, and I'll tell you what she said."
He frowned slightly. "I don't like it, but it seems the only way I'll be able to see you again. Very well then, we shall meet here tomorrow. May I escort you home?"
"Oh, I'd like you to—but no. If Papa should see you . . . The manor is just through the woods there. I'll be fine."
Robert helped her to mount her horse, and then gazed up at her with a smile. "Until tomorrow."
Breathlessly, Meg responded, "Until tomorrow." She turned her horse toward home. At the edge of the woods, she gazed back at him, lifted a hand in farewell, then quickly rode on.
Robert stared after her. His face bemused, he turned finally and began to make his way toward the road, his horse trailing along after him.
It was a full half hour before he remembered to mount his horse.

Chapter Three
Jenny wound her way through the forest, her mind considering various ways in which she could leave her stepfather's house. Not that it was his house—not really. But for the next year it might as well be his house. Lady Ross wasn't about to stand up to her husband—even for her daughter's sake. She would go on turning a blind eye to Sir George's tyranny because it was easier for her to do so. She lacked her daughter's strength of will.
After considering and rejecting several plans of escape, Jenny finally abandoned her unproductive line of thought. Oh, she could leave the manor easily. She had faith in her ability to take care of herself. But Meg was another matter entirely. Jenny had no intention of leaving Meg to Sir George's tender mercies. Leaving the manor would mean a hand-to-mouth existence at best, and Meg was simply not suited to such a life.
Jenny sighed and brought her mind back to the reasons why she was riding out on such a depressingly cold, damp day. John had sent word that there was someone waiting for her at the inn. Someone, that is, waiting for the Cat. She had a strong suspicion that it was Jason. If it was indeed Jason, Jenny hoped he had chanced across another spy.
She could not be certain, of course, that her father's killer was still in the business of selling information to enemies of England, but that still seemed her best chance of finding the murderer.
Jenny stopped her mare a hundred yards or so from the inn and dismounted. She tied the horse to a tree, then pulled on her hooded mask.
Moments later, she slipped silently inside the back door of the inn—so silently, in fact, that the man sitting at the table leaped to his feet and made an instinctive grab for his pistol when he looked up and saw her. He lowered his gun and glared at her. "For God's sake, woman—d'ye have to creep about like a cat? I could 'ave blowed your brains out afore I knew what I was about!"
He was a hard looking man of medium height and middle age, wearing patched and frayed clothing. His boots were cracked with age, and a greasy muffler was wound about his neck. For all his tattered appearance, he contrived to give an impression of dignity and, even in the short time she had known him, Jenny had learned to respect this man—this highwayman.
She stepped forward, amusement in her golden eyes. "Sorry, Jason. I had to make certain you were alone."
Jason laid his pistol on the table and continued to look irritated. "Sure, and who would I have with me? Me, that's wanted by the Runners almost as bad as you are."
Jenny chuckled and sat down across the table from him. "Never mind that, Jason. Why did you want to see me?"
He resumed his seat and stared at her. "I wish I knew why a lady like you would take to highway robbery."
"I told you why. I am searching for a spy."
"I remember what you told me. But I've got a few wits left, and I know there's more to it than that. You're too fine a lady to end with your neck in a noose. You ought to leave robbery to them that knows it best."
"Like yourself?"
"Bloody right!" He frowned at her. "This spy of yours—why is he so important?"
Jenny clasped her hands upon the table and leaned forward slightly. "Jason, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there an unwritten rule against one thief asking another thief awkward questions?"
Jason scowled. "I take that to mean you ain't going to answer me."
She smiled brilliantly. "I'm glad we understand one another. Now, if you wouldn't mind telling me why you wanted to see me ...?"
Jason grunted. "If that's how you want it."
"It is."
Obviously out of charity with her, he pulled a packet from inside his coat and tossed it across the table to her. "Took that off a gent the other night. Thought it might interest you."
Jenny slowly picked up the packet and stared at the official seal. After a brief struggle with her conscience, she broke the seal and opened the packet. There was a long silence while she flipped through the papers. "Jason, who did you take these from?"
"Don't you consider that an awkward question?" he asked with a sneer.
"Don't be difficult, Jason. Who was it?"
He shrugged. "Damned if I know. Just a flashcove with a fat purse and no taste for playing the hero."
"Meaning that he didn't shoot at you."
"Aye." Jason laughed. "He whimpered and moaned like I was the devil 'imself. Nearly broke his neck, he was in such a hurry to hand over his purse and them papers."
"Can you describe him to me?"
"Don't be daft, lass—it was as dark as pitch."
Jenny smiled wryly. "Sorry. I forgot that you refuse to ride on a moonlit night."
"You'd do the same if you had any sense. One of these 'moonlit' nights, some cove's gonna figure out who you really are; then the cat'll be out of the bag for sure, if you'll pardon my choice of words."
Jenny laughed. "Perhaps. But, never mind that now. You were right about these papers—they interest me very much. I'm much obliged to you, Jason, for bringing them to me."
Jason shrugged again. "No skin off my nose."
Jenny tapped the packet against the table thoughtfully. "This will have to be returned to the War Office as soon as possible." Her golden eyes were grim. "I must discover who was carrying these papers." She gazed across the table at her highwayman friend. "Jason, was the coach traveling toward the coast?"
Jason nodded. "Aye. 'Twas on the road to Dover."
"Was there baggage strapped on?"
He looked thoughtful. "Now that you mention it the top of the coach did seem a mite bulky. Happen the gent was planning to cross the Channel."
Jenny slammed the packet down on the table, her eyes flashing angrily. "Damn. Sometimes I think that half of England is spying for the French."
Jason shrugged. "It's profitable."
"It's also traitorous."
"Well now, lass, not everyone can be as loyal to England as you and me." He grinned at her. "What's in the bundle of papers anyway?"
Jenny continued to look angry, but her voice was calm as she replied, "Dispatches."
"Yes. From Wellesley. He plans to invade Southern France by crossing the Pyrenees. You can bet the French would love to know that."
Jason looked suitably impressed. "Aye, they would at that. But, who could 'ave stolen the dispatches? Seems to me they'd be kept under lock and key."
Jenny sighed. "They should have been, but things are very confused at the War Office these days."
He cocked an eyebrow. "And how would you know that, lass?"
She smiled easily. "You're asking awkward questions again, Jason."
Jason leaned back with a grunt. "If that ain't just like a woman. Here I am trying my poor best to help you catch this spy of yours, and you won't even answer a simple question."
Jenny relented with a rueful smile. "Well, don't get in a huff. I know what goes on in the War Office because I keep my ears open, that's all."
He looked irritated. "You could 'ave said so in the first place. You didn't 'ave to be so bloody mysterious about it."
She chuckled softly. "You should watch that temper of yours, Jason. It'll get you into trouble one of these days."
"Never mind my temper. What do you mean to do about those dispatches?"
She shrugged. "Return them to the War Office." With a thoughtful frown, she continued slowly. "But I think I'll hang on to them for a few days at least."
"I'd like to be able to tell them who stole the dispatches."
"Aye." Jason responded wryly, "I can see it now. You just walk up to the War Office (wearing your mask, o'course), knock on the door, and then tell whoever answers that you're the Cat and that you'd like to give them back some important dispatches that was stolen. Then you tell 'em who stole the dispatches, and leave." He shook his head. "Not bloody likely. They'd 'ave a noose 'round your neck afore you could open your mouth."
Jenny smiled faintly. "That wasn't quite how I planned to do it, Jason."
"Any way you plan, it is wrong. The Runners want you, lass—they want you bad."
"Damn the Runners." she responded irritably. "I'll do whatever I have to do. If they catch me, they just catch me."
"Now, lass—"
"Stop calling me lass."
"Then tell me your Christian name." He glared at her. "What am I supposed to call you if I don't know your name?"
Grudgingly, she replied, "Jenny. My name's Jenny."
"Jenny, then. You've made fools of the Runners for more than a year, but your luck won't hold out forever. Sooner or later they will catch you, and then this spy of yours will be free to go on selling information to France. If you mean to catch the spy afore the Runner catch you, you got to be careful, la-er-Jenny."
"Jason, I have every intention of being careful. I don't want the Runners to catch me, I assure you. But my most important task is to discover the identity of the spy." Beneath her breath, she muttered, "I only hope he's the right one."
As low as the words were, Jason caught them. With a quizzical tilt of his head, he asked, "What do you mean 'right one'?"
Jenny shrugged. "Nothing. Forget it."
After a moment of frowning silence, Jason's air of puzzlement vanished. Slowly, he said, "You ain't looking for spies—you're looking for one spy. Who is he, Jenny? Why is he so important to you?"
Glaring at him, she responded, "I said to forget it. It isn't important—and it isn't any of your business."
"Jenny ..." He hesitated, and then continued gruffly, "If I knew why you're looking for this spy, why he's so important to you, I mean, then maybe I could help."
For a long moment, Jenny was silent. Then, slowly, she said, "This particular spy is also a murderer. He killed someone very dear to me. I intend to see that he pays for it."
"Who did he kill, lass?"
"My father."
"I'm sorry, Jenny." He shook his head slowly. "I guess maybe you want this gent pretty bad."
"You guess correctly." Her voice was grim. "He'll hang for what he did—or I'll put a bullet in him myself."
Jason studied the young woman silently. He could not see her face—had never seen it—but he knew that she was very young— too young to devote her life to guns and masks and violence. He guessed from the tone of her voice and manner of speaking that she was gently born, and he had wondered from the first moment of meeting her why she had chosen such a violent life. Now he knew. But his curiosity about her remained strong.
He smiled inwardly as he remembered his one attempt, weeks before, to see her face. He had thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that he could wrest the mask from her by force. The attempt had gone sadly awry. He had found himself looking over the barrel of her pistol into a pair of coldly glittering tawny eyes—this before he had even begun to carry out his plan. She had an uncanny ability to seemingly read his mind.
She trusted him, but only to a certain point. He respected her for her caution; in fact, he respected the lady herself. She was quite a woman.
Jenny stirred slightly beneath his intense scrutiny. "Jason, will you please stop staring at me."
He grinned suddenly. "You're no thief. I always wondered about that. You come into the world hosed and shod—you've no need for thievin'. Now I see what it is. You want to find this gent that killed your father, so this is how you hunt for him."
She shrugged. "I didn't have much choice."
He shook his head slowly. "By choosing this way, though, you've gotten yourself in a pack of trouble. You have to watch every move you make because of the Runners. And if some gent gets lucky and finds out who you really are ..." His voice trailed off. After a moment, he continued slowly, "You'll hang. Lady or not, you'll hang."
Jenny smiled wryly. "That's one of the qualities I like about you, Jason—you're always so cheerful."
"You know it's the truth."
"Of course." Her eyes were grim. "I'm well aware of the fact that I've broken the law, and I don't expect any special consideration because I'm a woman. But, no matter what happens, I intend to find the man who killed my father. If the Runners try to catch me before then, they'll have to kill me to do it."
Jason frowned. "Your father's dead, lass. No matter what you do, you can't bring him back."
"No, I can't," she agreed. "But, perhaps I can help him rest a little easier."
"He won't rest easier if you're dangling at the end of a rope—or bleeding to death on some deserted back road," Jason replied starkly.
Jenny winced slightly.
He looked irritated. "You've got to face facts, Jenny. You can't help your father—and you've got your whole life before you. You're too young to waste it on some wild notion of revenge. "
"It's not a wild notion. Jason, the man is a traitor. He's also a murderer and I mean to stop him."
Jason sighed in defeat. "Well, since you're hell-bent to get yourself killed, I'll ask about and see if any of my friends have heard anything about a traitor. Maybe I can find out something."
She smiled at him. "Thank you, Jason—I knew I could count on you." She looked thoughtful. "Why don't you meet me here tonight?"
"I can't find out anything that soon," Jason objected.
Jenny nodded. "I know, but I thought that you and I could try to spot that coach you held up the other night."
"Oh, you did, did you?" Jason looked glum. "And I suppose you mean to stay out all night hunting for that damn coach?"
"Now, Jason—you said you wanted to help."
"I ought to be shot for what I said," he grumbled.
Jenny grinned and rose to her feet. "Eight o'clock, Jason. See you then." She lifted a hand in farewell and then slipped silently through the door and disappeared.
Jason stared after her. After a moment of frowning silence, he rose and prepared to leave. He had much to do before he met her at eight o'clock.

Chapter Four
It was a dark, gloomy night; the rain that had been falling steadily since morning seemed determined to continue. It dripped incessantly from the trees, falling softly on the dead leaves below.
The huge black stallion standing just inside the woods pawed the ground restlessly; he was unaccustomed to standing still for such a long time. The woman on his back soothed him with a gentle hand, then turned her gaze to her companion. "You're very quiet, Jason. Something wrong?"
Jason drew his cloak tighter about his shoulders and glared at her. "What could be wrong? You drag me out on a night like this—a night not fit for man or beast—just so I can catch my death."
"Don't fuss, Jason. You have to identify that coach for me."
"What makes you so bloody sure the coach will even be out tonight? The gent's probably at home hiding under his bed after being robbed the other night."
Quietly, she responded, "Jason, I—may not have much time. I must look for the man every chance I get."
"What do you mean by that?" He frowned at her.
"There are—problems. Problems that may force me to go away for a while."
"What kind of problems?"
She sighed softly. "Family problems. Never mind that now, Jason, just hope that the 'gent' had somewhere to go tonight."
Jason continued to frown. "An' if he ain't got somewhere to go? What then?"
Jenny uttered a very unladylike word. "Jason, will you stop asking me questions that I cannot possibly answer? If I do not find him tonight, I shall continue my search. I have no other choice."
Deciding that a good argument might serve to warm his chilled bones, Jason deliberately set out to anger his young friend—a calculated risk, her temper being what it was. "Don't be a fool. You 'ave another choice," he said.
Icy yellow eyes regarded him expressionlessly. "I should be delighted to hear," she remarked with awful politeness, "what that other choice is."
"You can stop your thievin' an' go back to bein' a proper young lady like your papa wanted. You ain't helpin' your papa, lass—an' how would he feel if he could see what you was doin'? D'you think he'd be proud of his little girl? No! He'd be grieved to see you actin' like a common thief."
It was a long speech, especially coming from the normally taciturn Jason, and Jenny stared at him rather blankly. Instead of taking offense, as he had intended for her to do, she merely seemed concerned.
"Jason, are you all right? You do not sound like yourself."
He sighed. Addressing the heavens, he said, "Ain't that just like a woman. They never act like you expect 'em to."
"Jason, what are you talking about?"
"Nothin', lass."
She stared at him for a moment and then shrugged slightly. He was, she decided, in a very peculiar mood tonight. She spared very little thought for it, however, as her ears caught the sounds of distant hoofbeats. Both the horses shifted restlessly as their riders' tension communicated itself to them.
As the coach rumbled past, Jenny strained her eyes to see if there was a crest on the panel, then turned a questioning gaze to the highwayman. He shook his head silently.
When the coach had disappeared into the darkness, Jenny swore softly and jerked off her hooded mask. "That makes the fifth coach tonight," she exclaimed irritably. "I am beginning to agree with you, Jason—this was an idiotic idea."
At that moment the moon made a brief appearance and, before it hid again behind the clouds, Jason was treated to the sight of Jenny's unmasked face. Astonished by the beauty he had been given a fleeting glimpse of, he was moved to say sharply, "For God's sake, woman, put that mask back on!"
Jenny shrugged and carelessly responded, "It's all right, Jason. I trust you."
"More fool you," the highwayman said darkly, "There's quite a price on your head; I could inform against you."
"You could," she agreed. "I could also inform against you." Her smile flashed white in the darkness. "I don't want to be brutal, Jason, but ask yourself who the Runners would be more likely to believe—you or me?"
Immediately struck by the truth of this question, Jason grinned at her. "You have a point."
"Of course."
He chuckled softly. "Now that we've cleared that out of the way, are we goin' to sit out here in the damp for the rest of the night?"
Jenny sighed in resignation. "I don't suppose it would do any good."
"Now you're being sensible."
The two riders turned their horses toward Maidenstone and rode back to the inn. They parted there, and Jason merely nodded when Jenny reminded him to "keep an eye out" for that coach.
Jenny stabled the black stallion and saddled her own mare for the ride back to the manor. Her vain attempt to discover the coach that Jason had held up caused her to feel deeply depressed, and the long ride back to the manor only increased her depression.
By the time she was safely back in her bedroom, Jenny desired nothing so much as a hearty bout of tears. But she did not cry. She lay silently in her bed and cheered herself with the thought that tomorrow night she would visit Spencer to return his jewels. On that pleasant thought, she fell asleep.
Jenny performed her routine household tasks the next morning, until an odd restlessness drove her to saddle her mare and go for a ride. She could not understand herself; knowing that she had a long ride ahead of her that night, she should not have been restless. Nonetheless, she had to escape from the manor—for a little while at least.
She wandered rather aimlessly through the woods near the manor, her mind on her coming meeting with Spencer.
This pleasant occupation of Jenny's mind was very lucky for Meg—otherwise Jenny would have been far more angry than she was when she came suddenly upon her stepsister locked in a passionate embrace with a blond stranger.
Jenny reined her mare to a stop and calmly gazed at the red-faced pair. Lifting an eyebrow, she remarked casually, "I am surprised at you, Meg. I really think you could have found a more discreet location for this—assignation. Who is this gentleman?"
Her calm acceptance of what was definitely a compromising situation deprived Meg of speech for a full minute. Finally, she recovered enough to say weakly, "Jenny, it—it isn't what you think!"
"Isn't it really? Then if it isn't what I think, Meg, perhaps you had better explain to me what it is. And, I repeat, who is this gentleman?"
Having by this time regained his composure, Robert stepped forward. "My name is Collins, ma'am—Robert Collins."
"How do you do?" she responded politely. "I am Jennifer Courtenay." With an economy of movement, she slipped from the saddle and tied her horse to a tree. Facing the worried couple, she said pleasantly, "You still haven't told me what the situation is, Meg."
When her stepsister remained silent, Jenny regarded the young gentleman with a measuring eye and remarked outrageously, "There is no need to be afraid of me, you know—I certainly cannot reproach you for your behavior toward Meg. However much you may deserve it, the feat is beyond my capability—you're too big."
Robert blinked at the remarkable young woman and said hastily (for he had the distinct feeling that the feat she spoke of was not beyond her capability), "I assure you, Miss Courtenay, that my intentions toward Meg are strictly honorable."
"Are they indeed? And just what are your intentions, Mr. Collins? Or shouldn't I ask?"
"I want to marry her."
Meg entered the conversation at this point. "I meant to tell you, Jenny, but you've been so busy the past few days that I never got the chance. Robert and I want to be married."
This dramatic pronouncement brought not the slightest change in Jenny's calm expression. "Really? This is rather sudden, is it not, Meg?"
"We've known each other for days."
Jenny fought to control her amusement. She had no doubt that Meg was completely serious. Only a slight quiver in her voice betrayed her when she murmured, "Days! That is—er— quite some time. And yet you have not applied to Sir George for his-er-blessings?"
"Well, of course not!" Meg exclaimed with pardonable annoyance. "What a perfectly bird-witted thing to ask. Jenny, you know Papa."
"Meg, do I really need to remind you that you are under age? You cannot possibly be married without Sir George's approval."
"Yes, well—that's where you come in, Jenny."
Jenny felt a sense of foreboding. "I? What can I possibly have to do with anything?"
With an angelic smile, Meg answered, "You can win Papa over, Jenny—I know you can."
"Meg, your father and I aren't even on speaking terms at the moment. Or have you forgotten Lord Stoven?"
Meg's guilty expression proved that she had, indeed, forgotten Jenny's rejected suitor. "Oh, dear. What can we do now?"
"Well, for one thing, you can explain to me how you came to do such an improper thing as to meet Mr. Collins in the woods."
"Jenny, where else could we meet?" Meg's voice was pleading. "You couldn't expect us never to see each other just because of Papa. We want to do the right thing, really we do, but we must see each other sometime."
"I understand that, Meg." Jenny sighed. "It will do no good to talk about it now, however. You and I must return to the manor before Sir George discovers that we are missing." She turned her gaze to Robert. "Mr. Collins, with all due respect to young love, I must ask you not to meet Meg in the woods any longer. The next time you two meet, you will be duly chaperoned—by me."
Jenny was completely aware of the absurdity of the situation. The Cat, a notorious thief, was calmly advising—no, commanding—a young couple to obey the laws of respectability.
She also realized, though, that Meg was far too innocent to understand the dangers of such a situation. But Jenny understood, and she had no intention of allowing Meg to destroy her reputation. One hoyden in the family was quite enough.
"But, Jenny—"
"Say good-bye to Mr. Collins, Meg. And don't look so upset. I promise that you two will meet again."
With Jenny's eye on them, the young lovers contented themselves with a handshake and an exchange of intense looks. Robert assisted the ladies in mounting their horses and watched as they rode off toward the manor.
All the way back to the manor Jenny listened as Meg praised Robert to the heavens. Yes, he was certainly a handsome young man. Yes, he seemed to be a perfect gentleman—ignoring the obvious strike against that particular virtue. Yes, his voice was certainly pleasant. Yes, his profile almost exactly matched that on a Greek coin.
Once at the manor, Jenny was able to escape from her stepsister's raptures. Pleading a headache, she escaped to her room for a few moments of well-earned rest.
Lying on her bed, she found her thoughts turning to Spencer, and scolded herself sharply for her selfishness. She should have been trying to think of a way to solve Meg's romantic problems.
Pushing the duke from her mind, she carefully thought about Meg and Robert. Immediately, the expression in Robert's eyes when he looked at Meg rose to her mind. Hard on the heels of that mental image came wistful thoughts of the duke.
With a silent curse, Jenny rolled over on her stomach and firmly thrust the duke from her thoughts once again. She was only thinking about him because of their coming meeting, she told herself. It was absurd to think that her recent exposure to young love had anything to do with her preoccupation.

Chapter Five
Spencer gazed broodingly into the fire, thinking of wild eyes and a cool, mocking voice. He wondered irritably how a woman with such distinctive eyes could be unknown. From her manner of speaking, she was gently born and well-educated. Yet more than two weeks of discreet questions and careful search had failed to discover a single young woman with wild, glittering eyes.
He propped his long legs upon a footstool and released a weary sigh. Devil take the woman. She was nowhere to be found.
"Good evening, Your Grace."
He jerked his head around, staring toward the window. It was her. She sat upon the windowsill, hooded and masked as before, negligently holding a pistol in one black-gloved hand.
Involuntarily, he said, "I have been searching everywhere for you."
"I cannot imagine why—unless you wished for the return of your property." Her free hand tossed a small leather pouch to land near his chair. "Your jewels. I regret that the money could not be returned as well. Unfortunately, it was needed elsewhere."
She turned to go, but Spencer said, "Wait. I—would like to talk to you." He knew instinctively that if he made a move to rise, she would disappear into the night.
Her golden eyes studied him intently. "I see no reason for a conversation between the two of us, Your Grace," she said coolly.
He smiled. "Humor me. I wish to get to know you. You are, after all, an enigma."
"By choice, Your Grace," she responded dryly. "A well-known thief tends to have a distressingly short career."
Again he smiled, genuinely amused by this strange, bold young woman. "You have nothing to fear from me, I assure you. Even if I knew your true identity, I would disclose it to no one."
Birdlike, she tilted her head to one side. "That is a very strange statement, Your Grace. I am a notorious thief; it is your duty as a loyal subject of the king, to do your utmost to aid in my apprehension."
He leaned his head back against the chair and studied her speculatively. "I am not entirely certain that you are a thief."
Small white teeth gleamed in a brilliant smile. "Have you forgotten that I robbed you?"
"No. And yet tonight you returned the jewels."
"But not the money."
"Which you said was needed elsewhere. I have talked to most of the people you robbed and they all told me that, without exception, all of their jewelry was returned to them. Hardly the behavior of a common thief."
"I never said I was common, Your Grace."
"What are you searching for?" He saw her stiffen in surprise, and continued quietly, "The only answer I could formulate is that you are searching for a particular article of jewelry."
"Astute of you," she responded abruptly. "And the money?"
"I can only assume that you have need of the money."
"Why not assume that I am simply a thief—greedy for riches?"
"There is still the matter of the jewels. If you were greedy, you would not have returned them."
Her golden eyes narrowed. After a moment, she said softly, "You think, Your Grace. That can be very dangerous in a man."
His eyes locked with hers. "It can be even more dangerous in a woman," he responded smoothly.
For a long moment, a silent battle of wills took place between them. Then the Cat began to smile. With a soft chuckle, she said, "You would be a formidable opponent, Your Grace."
His eyes were grave. "I have no wish to oppose you; I would like to help you."
She seemed surprised. "I believe you mean that."
"I do. If you would tell me what you search for, perhaps ..." His voice trailed off as he realized that, although she was still smiling, she had withdrawn from him.
"Thank you. I am very grateful for the offer, but this is something I must do alone."
There was a tinge of regret in his gray eyes. "You do not trust me."
Her smile twisted wryly. "My trust in my fellow man was never strong, Your Grace; it has deteriorated sadly during the past few years."
Quietly, Spencer said, "Some tragedy pushed you into this strange career. Something in your past. I feel that."
For a moment, she was silent. Then, in a rather mocking voice she said, "You are an incurable romantic, Your Grace; I am sure that your friends have often remarked it."
"Perhaps." He smiled faintly. "But I have always trusted in my instincts. In this case, my instincts tell me that you are not a thief, or a murderess, or even an essentially violent woman. I believe that you are simply a woman who searches for something which is very important to her."
He waited tensely, hoping desperately that she would confide in him. He had the distinct impression that she wanted to confide in him, but something held her back.
After a long moment, during which she stared at him gravely, she stirred slightly and said, "If I hear anything concerning the spy, I'll contrive to send word to you."
As she made a move to go, he said sharply, "Wait! Is there some way I could send a message to you, if need be?" There was a thick silence, and the duke, seeking to allay her distrust, spoke calmly. "I may hear something at the War Office concerning the spy."
Her wild golden eyes probed his serious gray ones. "Do you remember where I held you up?" she asked quietly.
"Just before you reach that point, there is a large hollow tree on the left side of the road. It is very distinctive; it was blasted by lightning and now leans heavily on another tree. Place a message within the tree. If you hear nothing from me within two weeks, you will know that I am unable to reply."
Spencer thought fleetingly of the various reasons why she would be unable to reply—a gunshot wound, a hangman's noose. He forced a smile. "Thank you."
She threw one leg across the windowsill and then paused, an alarming coldness creeping into her eyes. "Do not betray me!" she said intensely. "If a trap is set ..."
"There will be no trap," he responded quietly. "I give you my word."
The coldness slowly faded from her eyes, to be replaced by a faintly wondering expression. "Strangely enough, I believe you. But make no mistake—I am not bound by a code of honor. If I am betrayed, the price will be great. I will do whatever I must do to survive."
Spencer inclined his head gravely. "I understand."
"I hope so, Your Grace. I do indeed hope so." A moment later she was gone.
Spencer was left to stare after her, feeling both disappointment and elation—disappointment because she had not confided in him, elation because she had given him a means to contact her. And he had every intention of contacting her. He had a very definite desire to learn all that he could about this young woman called the Cat.
Jenny drew her cloak more closely about her shoulders, and gave the stallion his head. After a year of skulking through the back streets of London, the horse knew the quickest and safest route home as well as his mistress did. He picked his way through the quiet streets, leaving Jenny free to turn her thoughts to her visit with the duke.
She was somewhat angry with herself for giving the duke a means to contact her. She could not remember ever having made such an incautious move before, and her reasons for having done so now worried her. It had been a purely instinctive, feminine reaction to a handsome and charming man. It had not been the reaction of a thief who feared the hangman's noose.
She could not remember ever having been drawn to anyone the way she was drawn to this stranger. She had had an absurd impulse to confide in him—to tell him why she had become a thief. When she had overcome that impulse and refused his help, when he had looked at her with regret in his eyes—regret and perhaps something more—she had been conscious of an absurd desire to cry. She felt strangely afraid to ask herself why she had reacted that way.
It wasn't as if Jenny had never spent time with a man; she had been the object of masculine attention since she had first put up her hair and let down her skirts. The young men of neighboring estates had flocked around her for more than four years. But that was different somehow.
The young gentlemen had been pleasant company. They had been very anxious to please her, taking her riding, dancing with her, writing poems in praise of her beauty—the list was endless.
She had never had the desire to confide in any of those pleasant young men, had never been tempted to express the pain that she felt whenever she thought of her father, or the resentment— even hatred—that she felt toward Sir George.
She had never felt breathless when they looked at her or oddly confused when they smiled at her. And her heart had never tried to leap out of her breast when one of those nice young men exclaimed that he had been searching everywhere for her.
A man's voice had never tingled along her nerve endings like pleasant music, stirring impossible dreams in her mind. A man's eyes had never seemed to light up the entire room, had never made her see herself through his eyes.
A man's face had never haunted her dreams or stubbornly intruded on her thoughts. A man's broad shoulders had never inspired her to relinquish burdens that she had carried for years, burdens too heavy for her own narrow shoulders.
But, most of all, a man's simple presence had never stirred in her such a vivid awareness of her own womanhood. A man's gray-eyed gaze had never set her on fire with a burning desire for something she had never experienced, something she could not even put a name to.
Until she had met the Duke of Spencer. This man—this stranger—had managed to do all of these things. His smile caused thoughts to fly from her head like chaff in the wind. His calm gray eyes made her feel, for the first time in her life, like a woman. His face haunted her dreams, her thoughts. His voice echoed in her mind. She wanted to confide in him, to lay her burdens on his strong shoulders, and to give her heart into his keeping.
They were usual thoughts of a young woman on the verge of falling in love. For Jenny, they were dangerous ones as well.
Jenny frowned, considering the matter. She tried to understand what it was about the man that had caused her to react as she had. He was certainly a handsome man, with his dark hair and gray eyes. He had the look of nobility—with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and a firm mouth.
He was tall and broad-shouldered; his voice was low and pleasant. In short, he was everything she had always dreamed of in a man.
Sternly, she reminded herself that dreams were dreams— vague, insubstantial things—and that reality, though not always as pleasant, was a great deal more important. She could not afford the luxury of being attracted to a man at the present time— not any man.
Having come to this conclusion, she resolved to put the Duke of Spencer out of her mind. It was a very firm and carefully thought out resolution. Unfortunately, it did not take into account Jenny's undoubtedly feminine nature. Even though she could outride, outshoot, and outswear most men, she was still very much a woman.
Halfway back to the manor, Jenny realized that she was still thinking of the duke. She swore under her breath and urged the stallion to a gallop. She had to find some way of putting Spencer out of her mind, once and for all. Perhaps the brisk gallop would do it. Then again, perhaps it would not.

Chapter Six
Jenny paced restlessly in front of the young couple. She still had quite a few reservations regarding their intended marriage, and she wanted to be very sure before she tried to help them— which was why she was up and about so early in the morning, and why she was wearing a path on the rug of a private parlor in a small posting house near the manor.
She halted suddenly and faced Meg and Robert. "I think you're both fools. Even if you had Sir George's approval, you're both too young to set up housekeeping."
Quietly Robert Collins said, "I'm twenty-six, Miss Courtenay—old enough to know my mind."
"For heaven's sake, call me Jenny." She smiled suddenly. "Since you seem bent on becoming my brother-in-law."
He smiled in return. "Only if you will call me Robert."
"Very well—Robert—you are twenty-six and Meg is sixteen—"
"Nearly seventeen." It was Meg, her voice firm.
Jenny nodded. "Seventeen, then. The fact remains, Meg, that you are barely out of the schoolroom. And to marry a man you have just met..."
"Jenny, I love him. I don't have to know him for years to be sure of that."
Jenny sighed. "I know that, honey. I only want to be sure you aren't getting married only to escape from your father—if you will forgive my plain speaking, Robert."
He nodded, his blue eyes serious. "Of course. Jenny, I know that Meg is very young, but I love her. I'll take care of her." He sighed. "I wanted to talk to Sir George, but Meg assures me that he would have me thrown from the house."
Jenny smiled wryly. "She's right. Sir George intends Meg to marry a fortune—especially now that he's found he can't bend me to his will." She looked at him thoughtfully. "You weren't thinking of Gretna Green, I hope?"
Robert stiffened. "I would never consider taking Meg there."
"Well, don't poker-up about it," Jenny said mildly. But she was pleased by his response. It showed him to be a sensible man, not given to romantic flights of fancy. Coming to a decision, Jenny said, "I'll help you. I don't know how as yet, but I'll help you."
Meg flew to embrace her. "Oh, Jenny—thank you! I knew we could depend on you."
Jenny hugged her stepsister. "Don't become overexcited, Meg. I may be unable to help at all. But, I promise to do what I can."
Robert stepped forward with a smile. "That's all we can ask. Thank you, Jenny."
Jenny gave them both a warning look. "You may have to be patient. Meg cannot be married without Sir George's permission— and obtaining that will take some doing. Also, I have other matters that must be attended to." She watched as the young couple exchanged intense looks. "I'll leave you alone to say good-bye. Meg, if you aren't outside in ten minutes, I'll come in after you." With that, she quietly left the room.
As the two young ladies rode toward home, Meg kept up a constant flow of chatter about Robert. Jenny listened for the first five minutes and then began to lose patience with her stepsister's raptures.
Ruthlessly, she cut her off in midsentence. "Meg, why don't you ride on home? I have something I must do."
Meg smiled absently, caught up in her dreams. "All right, Jenny."
Jenny watched her ride away, then turned her horse toward the woods. She had a restless urge to check the hollow tree where she had told Spencer to leave messages. It had only been a few days since she had seen him, of course, but she had a feeling he may have learned of the missing dispatches by now. She had to get them back to the War Office some way, and giving them to Spencer seemed the best solution. He, at least, was no traitor.
Jenny wasn't sure why she was so positive about Spencer's loyalty to England. She simply was. However, her trust in his loyalty had little to do with her trust in him as a man.
Nearly an hour later, Jenny was reading a message from Spencer. It was a short note, stating simply that he needed to see her. She frowned slightly as she considered the note.
Spencer had probably learned of the missing dispatches. Or perhaps he merely wanted to see her again. Jenny was not being vain when she considered that possibility; the duke had seemed very curious about her when she had returned his jewels to him. It was possible that he would send for her in order to learn as much as he could about her.
Jenny thought of the dispatches, and carefully weighed the risks of taking them to Spencer. The risk of taking them herself was great; Jason had been right in saying that would be a sure way of getting herself hanged.
Yet, she had no choice. She slowly tore the message into tiny bits. She would take the dispatches to Spencer.
It was nearly midnight. Spencer sat at the desk in his study, looking over the deeds to some property he had just purchased. He had no expectation of receiving a visit from the Cat; he had left a message for her only that morning.
He heard no sound; there was no warning of her coming. One moment he was alone in the study, the next he felt a presence in the room. He slowly turned his head to see her standing silently inside the open window.
"Good evening, Your Grace."
He rose slowly to his feet, smiling. "Good evening. I didn't expect you to come quite so soon—I left the message only this morning."
She smiled easily. "You wanted to see me, I believe?"
"Yes." He moved carefully around to sit on the corner of his desk. "There are some important dispatches missing from the War Office. I thought you should know about it."
Jenny pulled a bundle from beneath her cloak and tossed it to him. Silently, she awaited his reaction.
He perused the documents for a few moments, then looked up at her. "That was quick work." There was a speculative gleam in his eyes.
She smiled wryly. "I suppose you may be forgiven for what you are thinking, Your Grace, though I find it hard to do so. No, I did not take the dispatches. A friend of mine—a highwayman— took them from a coach bound for the Channel. He gave them to me. I have no idea who removed them from the War Office. You may believe that if you choose."
He inclined his head gravely. "If you say that you did not take them, then of course I believe you."
"Why 'of course'?"
He placed the dispatches on the desk and studied her thoughtfully. "I trust you," he replied calmly.
She shook her head with a faint smile. "To trust a thief? You're a strange man, Your Grace."
"We have been over that before. I do not believe you are a thief."
"Then you are a poor judge of character," she responded coolly.
"I think not."
She stirred impatiently. "Shall we agree to differ on that point? I am only concerned that the dispatches are returned to the proper authorities. I assume that you will see to that?"
Her rose, smiling. "Of course. But that wasn't the only reason I wanted to see you."
"Wasn't it?"
"No. I'd like to become better acquainted with you. I've been thinking of you—almost constantly—ever since we first met. There are several things about you which puzzle me."
As he spoke, he moved closer to her and Jenny, caught up in what he was saying, was unaware until too late what his intentions were. Instinctively, she reached for the pistol in her belt, only to find her wrists caught in his strong hands.
With a calm smile, he gazed down at her enraged eyes. "I am most curious to discover whether or not there is a woman beneath that mask."
Jenny smiled thinly. "Brute force, Your Grace?"
"You must forgive my tactics, but they seemed the best— under the circumstances."
Jenny stared up at him, startled to discover how tall he was; the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. After a moment, she said quietly, "If you mean to remove my mask, I can do nothing to stop you. But if you do, I will hate you for the rest of my life."
The total lack of expression in her voice convinced him far more than any emotional outburst would have done. With a sigh, he murmured, "Yes, I suppose you would hate me—and that is the last thing I want. I won't try to remove your mask."
"Thank you." She smiled slightly. "And could you also release my hands?"
"So that you can shoot me?" His smile was wry.
"You said that you trusted me," she reminded him.
"So I did—until I gave you reason to shoot me."
"Very well. I give you my word that I will not shoot you." But the duke was no longer attending. He was staring at her, and something in his eyes gave his thoughts away.
Jenny felt the first stirring of panic. "Your Grace, you wouldn't—" She began to struggle, fighting desperately to free herself from him.
Spencer controlled her struggles easily. He looked down at her, a flame burning deep in his eyes. "There is more than one way to discover if there is a real, warm-blooded woman beneath that mask.
"Let me go, damn you!"
He pulled her against him suddenly, pinning her arms between their bodies. "I'm afraid that I can't do that. I must know, you see ..."
Jenny stared up at him as his head slowly lowered to hers. Her fear left her the moment his lips touched hers. Suddenly, there wasn't anything to be afraid of.
Jenny had never been kissed before, but she was a woman and her response was instinctive. Her arms slipped around his neck, and she returned his kiss with an ardor she didn't know she possessed. For her, the world vanished. No thoughts of danger entered her head; she didn't worry about her identity being discovered. All that mattered were his arms around her and his lips moving possessively over her own.
Spencer had wondered if there was a real woman beneath the mask; he had asked himself if any woman could do the things that this one did. He had his answer now. No matter what had driven her to her strange career, she was quite definitely a woman.
He fought to keep a tight rein on his passion; he had no desire to frighten her away before he could learn her identity.
With obvious reluctance, he slowly drew away from her and gazed down at her upturned face. Her face was bemused, her eyes dazed with passion. His voice husky, Spencer murmured, "So—you are a woman, after all."
Jenny stared up at him, the dazed look slowly fading from her eyes. Her arms slid from around his neck and she stepped back, shaking her head in an unbelieving manner. "You—you don't play fair, Your Grace. I didn't realize how ruthless you could be." Her voice was low and haunted.
"I didn't mean to—"
"Oh, yes, you did. How did it feel, Your Grace, kissing the Cat?" There was as much hurt as anger in her voice—though she was unaware of it.
"It wasn't like that." He stepped toward her, his eyes grave.
"Wasn't it? Forgive me if I find that hard to believe. I hope you're satisfied, Your Grace. When they lead me to the gallows, you can tell all of your friends that you kissed the Cat." Her laughter rang out harshly in the still room.
"No." His voice was low and taut, his face strained. "I kissed you because I couldn't help myself—because I am attracted to you. It had nothing to do with your being the Cat."
"Didn't it?" She moved quickly to the window, and then gazed back at him, cold mockery in her eyes. "A woman in a mask quite piques the curiosity, Your grace. It was nothing more than that." She slipped out the window and disappeared into the night.
Spencer stood and stared after her. "You're wrong," he murmured. "It was much more than that."

Chapter Seven
Jenny wearily pulled herself out of bed early the next morning. She had slept very little during the few hours she had been in bed, her mind filled with her visit to the duke's house. Over and over, she had considered his actions, finally coming to the conclusion that he never would have kissed her had she not been the Cat.
It was useless to remind herself that she never would have met him either if she had not been the Cat. She was interested only in his reason for kissing her. He had kissed her because she was the Cat; because his curiosity had been piqued by a strange woman in a black mask. It was a lowering reflection.
Jenny sighed and, fighting off her depression, began to dress for the day. She was braiding her hair when she heard a sudden commotion outside her bedroom door. Leaving the waist-length braid hanging over one shoulder, Jenny quickly went to find the source of the commotion.
Meg, with tears streaming down her cheeks, fell into Jenny's arms the moment the door was opened. "Oh, Jenny, Mama says I can never see Robert again!"
Lady Ross, one step behind her, said sternly, "Jenny, Meg tells me that you were aware of this disgraceful situation. It was very improper of you not to have come to me. I am surprised at you. That any daughter of mine could condone anything so improper."
Jenny felt a headache coming on. Making no attempt to halt Meg's sobs, she said to her mother, "Mama, they love each other. It would be heartless to forbid them to see each other. I know I should have told you, but I was hoping to find some way of gaining Sir George's permission for them to marry."
"Marry! Jenny, Meg is little more than a child. And I have no very high opinion of a man who would meet a girl of Meg's age in so clandestine a fashion. This Robert is obviously a cad with no proper feelings at all. I will not allow it."
"On the contrary, Mama, Robert is every inch the gentleman. He is strongly averse to seeing Meg in such a manner, but what more can he do? Sir George would have him thrown from the house."
"Because he is penniless. I will not allow Meg to throw herself away by marrying a man who has not even the means to support her."
Deciding that the time for tact was long past, Jenny said brutally, "Then you will be condemning her to a loveless marriage. Would you like to see her sold to the highest bidder? You know very well that Sir George intends to do so. Just as he tried to force me to marry that horrible Lord Stoven."
Lady Ross said firmly, "Meg is too young to marry anyone at present. She is barely out of the schoolroom. And she will not be forced to marry anyone against her will. I will not allow it."
Continuing to employ brutal tactics, Jenny said, "Mama, you have never stood up to Sir George. He intends to line his pockets with marriage settlements, and now that I have refused to comply, he will be twice as determined to marry Meg to a fortune. How do you mean to stop him?"
Lady Ross felt a sharp pain somewhere inside her as she saw the scorn in her daughter's eyes. She realized then, the damage she had done by bowing meekly to Sir George's autocratic demands. She had destroyed any respect that her daughter may have felt for her.
Meg lifted tearstained eyes from Jenny's shoulder and stared pleadingly at her stepmother. "Mama, I love Robert. I want to spend the rest of my life with him. I don't care that he hasn't got any money."
A plan began to weave itself through Lady Ross's mind, and she said rather sharply, "Don't be foolish, Meg. Without the comforts that money can provide, this love of yours would be destroyed within a year."
Quietly, Jenny said, "Money isn't everything, Mama. And I can give Meg a sizable dowry; that will help them quite a lot."
Slowly, Lady Ross said, "You won't come into your fortune for another year, Jenny."
"Yes." Jenny gave her mother a meaningful look, and then smiled at her stepsister. Gently, she said, "You will wait a year, won't you, Meg?"
Her eyes wide, Meg whispered, "But it's such a long time."
"I know, honey. But the wait will accomplish several things. It will give you the chance to grow up a little; it will give Robert a chance to make sure that he can provide for you; and it will prove to Mama that you are serious about Robert."
"But—a whole year." Meg's tears started up afresh. "I don't know if I can bear it!"
Jenny patted her back comfortingly and stared rather wryly at her mother. "It is a little much to expect her to kick her heels for a year. She needs something to occupy her mind."
"Yes," Lady Ross murmured softly. The plan in her mind had now flowered to completion. "Come with me." She turned abruptly and led the way toward the stairs.
The two girls followed as Lady Ross led the way, completely puzzled. It soon became apparent that her destination was Sir George's study.
Meg immediately panicked. Her eyes wide with terror, she gasped, "Mama, no! Oh, please don't tell Papa about Robert!"
Inexorably, Lady Ross said, "Come along."
Jenny, sensing that her mother had some set purpose in mind, hushed Meg and, with an arm around her for support, led her into the study.
Sir George looked up as the ladies entered, his brow dark with irritation. "What's all this? You know I hate to be disturbed. A pretty thing it is when a man can't even find peace in his own home."
Perfectly calm, Lady Ross informed him that she had caught Meg returning from a clandestine meeting with a young man unknown to any of the family except for Jenny. Since he was Meg's father, it was imperative that he be put in possession of the facts.
Sir George ranted. He raved. He said a great many things that were largely unintelligible to his listeners—and a good thing, too. They would have curled their hair.
Jenny, wincing from some of the descriptive epithets of her character (for Sir George was still enraged about Lord Stoven), wondered if the servants were being well entertained. His voice was no doubt audible in the village.
Ten minutes later, he was still going strong. He worked off his rage toward Jenny in fine style, tearing her character to shreds and depressing any pretentions she may have had toward being a human being of any consequence at all.
Jenny bore the abuse stoically, her face expressionless and her eyes veiled. Automatically, she patted Meg from time to time as the younger girl, convinced that she was next, sobbed pathetically into her shoulder. In a detached manner, she wondered if his rage would bring on a fit.
Having dispensed with Jenny to his satisfaction, Sir George finally began slashing verbally at Meg. He used words and phrases that would have shocked even the most depraved of women, and a spark of anger showed in Jenny's eyes.
Interrupting him in mid-insult, Jenny said coldly, "That is quite enough. Meg is completely innocent; it was your cruelty that drove her to meet Robert on the sly. You have no cause to say such horrible things about your own daughter."
"You hold your tongue, miss! I'll say what I like about her, and I say that she has the morals of a cat. I'll have no bastards in this house."
Jenny gasped in outrage, while Meg sobbed even harder. "How dare you." She immediately fired up in defense of her stepsister. "Meg is completely innocent of men. She would never do anything to disgrace her good name."
Sir George contented himself with uttering a derisive, "Ha!"
Furiously, Jenny said, "Meg must have gotten her virtues from her mother; they certainly did not come from you. You're an insensitive brute."
"I am the head of this house, and I'll not stand for this disrespect."
"You have to earn respect."
"That's enough!" Sir George's roar rattled the windowpanes. "Upstairs, the both of you. You're to be locked in your rooms until I say differently. You will learn to respect me." He glared at them. "And you will marry whomever I say."
"No." It was Lady Ross, her quiet voice cutting through every other sound.
Meg abruptly stopped crying and lifted astonished eyes to her stepmother. Jenny's eyes were no less astonished.
The room was filled with a quivering silence. All eyes turned to Lady Ross. She stood, frail shoulders squared and face determined, in a confrontation with her husband which she had avoided for six years.
Sir George appeared totally stunned by the unlooked-for interruption. "What did you say?" he sputtered.
She turned cool eyes to her husband. "I said that neither Meg nor Jenny will be locked in their rooms. And they will not be forced to marry against their will. It is one thing to forbid what is obviously an unsuitable match, quite another to force a girl to marry a man she abhors."
"I'm the head of this family!" Sir George bellowed. "I make the decisions."
Lady Ross glanced at the quiet figures of Meg and Jenny. "Jenny, you and Meg wait for me upstairs."
"Yes, Mama." Jenny immediately began shepherding her stepsister toward the door, feeling a new respect for her mother.
As soon as the doctor closed behind them, Sir George began his tirade. "What the hell is going on here? What do you mean by encouraging those girls to disobey me? I run this house and I'll thank you to remember it."
"I will thank you to remember," Lady Ross replied calmly, "that while you may or may not be the head of this family— depending, I suppose, on your point of view—I control the purse strings. The girls will go to London."
Sir George went beet-red with fury. "I am your husband! You will obey me!" he thundered.
"No," she said very quietly. "I will not obey you—not this time. My obedience to you in the past has all but lost me my daughter's respect." She gave her head a tiny shake, as if to throw off unwelcome thoughts. "In any event, Jenny and Meg are young women now and cannot be treated as children. They will go to my old friend, Lady Beddington, who is Jenny's godmother, and will make their come out this year."
"I forbid it."
"I am afraid you have no choice in the matter, George. You have several rather large outstanding gambling debts. Unless you agree to send the girls to London, those debts will not be paid. And since you sold your own estate and spent the proceeds long ago, you will find yourself at something of a stand."
For the first time in their marriage, Sir George felt oddly unsure of himself. There was an expression in his wife's eyes that he had never seen before—strongly resembling the glint of determination that he had seen in Jenny's eyes on more than one occasion. He had no doubt that she meant exactly what she said. And she was right—he had no choice.
Lady Ross entered Jenny's bedroom to find the girls waiting tensely. "Meg, Jenny, start packing—but only enough for two or three weeks. You will both need completely new wardrobes for your come out."
"Mama—" Meg burst into tears. "Please don't make me go. If you would only meet Robert..."
Lady Ross touched her cheek gently. "Meg, I'll make you a promise. Go to London with Jenny, go to all the parties and balls, laugh and dance and flirt with the young men. And when you come home in the summer, if you are still of the same mind, I will meet this Robert and we will see what can be worked out."
"But, Mama—"
"Meg. You will experience the pleasure of your come out only once in your lifetime. Enjoy it while you can—before you become tied to a home and family."
Jenny, who had been thinking hard, stepped forward then. "Let me talk to her, Mama." She smiled warmly at her mother.
Lady Ross smiled in return and quietly left the room. Jenny found a handkerchief and firmly dried Meg's tears. "Meg, listen to me. Where does Robert live?"
Meg's sobs died away and she stared at Jenny through suddenly hope-filled eyes. "In London!"
"Exactly. And the two of you will be able to see each other in a perfectly respectable fashion."
Meg threw her arms around her stepsister. "Oh, Jenny, isn't it wonderful? We'll dance together and go riding and—" She broke off with a gasp. "Good heavens—I must go and pack!" She raced from the room.
Jenny sighed rather wearily and turned to her own packing. She felt no compunction in raising Meg's hopes; if it was humanly possible, she meant to see the young couple wed within a year.
She straightened from her work and frowned slightly. She would send Robert a note and ask him not to make any attempt to see Meg for a few weeks at least. It would do no harm for Meg to meet other young gentlemen.
Thoughts of her own fate rose to haunt her. It was the height of folly for her to even consider living in London. One wrong word or gesture, and she would be completely undone. She would hang as an example to anyone foolish enough to commit the offense of highway robbery.
And what of Spencer? He knew her better than any of her victims. What if he recognized her? Could she trust him not to betray her?
For the first time in her life, Jenny declared a pox on all unanswerable questions.

Chapter Eight
The following days were filled with preparations for the journey to London. A letter was sent off immediately to Lady Bedding-ton, and her reply quietly gratified Lady Ross. Yes, indeed, she would be delighted to have Meg and Jenny stay with her for the Season.
Maids spent a great deal of time packing and unpacking trunks; Meg was constantly misplacing something or other, and would instantly search every trunk for the lost article—meaning that the disordered trunks had to be packed all over again.
Jenny managed, without Meg's knowledge, to have a quiet meeting with Robert. He was understandably reluctant to agree with her request that he not try to see Meg for a while, but finally gave in. He would remain in Kent for a few weeks.
That worry out of the way, Jenny also managed to send word to John and Jason that she would be out of touch for a while.
She fully intended to continue in her search for her father's murderer, but she wanted time to settle in town first. It would give her a chance to sample public opinion. She was completely aware that, for the most part, there was a great deal of quiet championship for the Cat. The polite world was all agog to know who the mystery woman was—and why she had taken to robbery.
But public opinion could turn against her in an instant, and she wanted to be aware when and if that happened. Not that the tide of public opinion influenced her overmuch; she would simply have to be more cautious.
Jenny stared out the coach window at the passing scenery and felt a flicker of excitement as she thought of finally reaching London. She had ridden through London, of course, but only to return jewelry to its rightful owners. On those occasions, she had always been solely concerned with avoiding the watch. There had certainly been no opportunity for sightseeing.
Now, she was going to spend the next few months living in London. Unless, of course, someone realized that she was the Cat. In that event, she would not have to worry about anything— except what she wanted written on her headstone.
Jenny shook away that depressing thought, and began to dispassionately consider the reason behind her sudden urge to see London. It had never seemed so important before. She was not in the habit of deceiving herself, and she was fully, though reluctantly, aware that the foremost reason for her interest was the Duke of Spencer.
He was intruding on her thoughts far too often for her peace of mind, and Jenny was at a loss to know how to deal with such a situation. It was beyond her experience. Her traitorous mind conjured up a mental image of the duke at little or no provocation, causing her to lapse into sudden silences. Even her mother had noticed, and had worriedly inquired if she was feeling all right. Jenny had brushed away her mother's concern.
It was not quite so easy to brush away her own concern. Jenny had discovered that she had a very stubborn mind. It did no good at all to tell herself firmly that the duke would have nothing to do with a thief. The heart was not a logical organ. And neither, apparently, was a dream-fogged mind.
Jenny's worries were temporarily laid to rest upon the coach's arrival in London. Meg exclaimed excitedly over the traffic and the fine-looking gentlemen, and if Jenny searched the crowd rather intently for a tall, handsome gentleman, Meg was blessedly unaware of it.
The coach drew up before a fine-looking residence on Berkeley Square
, and the double doors were immediately opened by a dignified butler with a forbidding aspect.
The butler (who informed them regally that his name was Somers) led them to the drawing room and announced their names. Before he could complete the introduction, both girls were engulfed in affectionate hugs from a middle-aged matron with a rather stout figure and mischievous blue eyes. She drew back far enough to smile happily at the girls, and then nodded a dismissal at the patiently waiting butler. "Oh, go away, do, Somers. I know very well who they are." Without waiting to see if the butler obeyed, she immediately launched on a nonstop dialogue to her guests about the parties and balls they would be attending, the handsome young gentlemen they would be meeting, the sad state of the king's health, the war with Bonaparte, and a terribly insipid ball she had attended the night before. She jumped from one topic to another in a bewildering manner which was calculated to totally confuse even the most astute of listeners.
Jenny and Meg listened rather blankly, and followed meekly when Lady Beddington led them upstairs, saying that they would no doubt wish to rest after their long journey.
"Just as if," Meg later confided to Jenny, "we had come from India instead of Kent."
The two girls were sitting on the bed in Jenny's room while their maids unpacked the trunks. Their chattering hostess had left them to rest, but since they were both country girls accustomed to plenty of exercise, they preferred to talk.
Meg laughed softly, saying, "I like Lady Beddington. She seems so cheerful."
Jenny laughed in response. "At least we won't have to worry about holding up our end of the conversation—not while she's present, at any rate."
"Jenny," said Meg, changing the subject abruptly, "promise me that you won't tell Lady Beddington that Mama has forbidden me to see Robert."
Jenny smiled at her stepsister. "I won't tell her, Meg. But you must remember what Mama said. Try to enjoy yourself here. It isn't such a long time until summer, you know."
"All right, Jenny," Meg replied doubtfully, "but it won't be easy to enjoy myself until I can see Robert again. It won't be easy at all."
However much Meg may have doubted her ability to enjoy herself in London, Lady Beddington saw to it that she had little time to do anything but enjoy herself. After innumerable shopping trips, dress fittings, and dancing lessons, the girls were ready to make their curtsies to polite society. They had been in London slightly above a week.
At their first party, the girls were immediately swamped with young men desirous of becoming better acquainted, and matrons had only good things to say about their manners and general deportment.
Overnight, Jenny became known as the Dark Incomparable, and Meg became so accustomed to hearing herself described as an angel that she decided London was a very nice place after all.
And when it became known the Jenny was a heiress, her circle of admirers widened even more. She was slightly amused by the fortune hunters, and did nothing at all to discourage them. She preferred to treat all her admirers impartially, secure in the belief that she was well able to take care of herself.
Within a very few days, however, Jenny found that she was growing slightly jaded with all the attention she had been receiving. She was cynically aware of the fact that at least part of her suitors were interested in her fortune rather than herself, and their flowery compliments soon began