What awaits uneasy Emma on her return home?
The December night was dark, mists whispering through the streets as effective as a London fog for cloaking sins.
The figure in black smiled. Lady Luna was being kind tonight, hiding her luminescence to assist those wanting shadows.
On cat-like feet, the figure crept along the slumbering row of festive townhouses, their sightless eyes hooded by heavy curtains, until reaching the appointed residence.
A glance revealed the side gate leading to the back entrance was ajar, as arranged. The figure paused for a last look round, then headed for the gate.
Time was of the essence…
Emma Danesforth had enjoyed her evening. Though it meant she was another year older, she still had that youthful charm which first attracted her husband.
She squeezed the arm linked through hers as the carriage rumbled into Sullivan Square.
George was a sweetheart, indulging her whims when his own were more conservative. That was why, when he’d asked what she wanted to do for her birthday two days before Christmas, she’d denied her party instinct and opted for an intimate dinner, which she knew he’d much prefer.
Now she sighed, thinking wistfully of her parlour filled with firelight and the colourful characters that peopled their life.
“Is all well, my love?”
George had insisted she dress up for dinner, and had been proud to enter the restaurant with her, bedecked in deep festive green, on his arm.
She laid her cheek against his sleeve.
“Yes,” she said. But was that true?
A feeling had been creeping over her, difficult to describe. Was it a premonition? A sense that something, somewhere, wasn’t quite right.
Or had she been listening to too many tales of the notorious Shadow thief preying on this part of town in the night hours?
She peered out at the square, silvered with a kiss of frost. All seemed quiet and still.
The carriage drew to a halt outside Number Twelve, its mistletoe wreath proudly hung above the door knocker. Emma accepted George’s hand to help her alight.
As she told herself she was being fanciful, she caught sight of the side gate trembling in the breeze.
She shivered, but before she could speak, George was hurrying her up the steps into the house.
An air of hushed expectancy met them in the hall. Emma paused, nose raised like a doe scenting danger.
“Where’s Betty?” she whispered.
George removed the elegant wrap from her shoulders.
“We gave her the night off, don’t you recall?”
Emma swallowed, staring at a line of flickering light showing through the bottom of the parlour door.
“But there’s a light on. Look!”
“So she’s left the fire burning low for us. Let’s go and see.”
On reluctant feet, Emma allowed George to lead her forward and push the door wide. She felt a moment of suspended breath, then a burst of noise and colour as the room erupted into life.
The voices cried out in unison, then lights were clicked on to join the dancing fire as friends and family surged to enfold Emma.
She threw a look of mingled joy and relief at George, who bent to kiss her before he lost her to the others.
“Happy birthday, darling. Did you guess?” he asked.
“I had no idea!” She laughed.
Those embarrassing fancies could be kept to herself, and save her blushes…
Two floors up, the figure previously in black smiled at sounds of arrival. A festive drinks party, no doubt; perfect for her purposes.
Nimbly reversing knapsack into reticule, she took a moment to smooth down the lace of her dress. Time to become her other self.
How she loved her work, and the chance to get the upper hand on those husbands who believed women to be lesser beings, capable of no more than keeping house and looking elegant.
Those who hired “the Shadow” to acquire household jewels or pretend to take them for insurance purposes naturally assumed the infamous thief was male.
An elegant gown was as good as any disguise; if anyone saw her leaving, they would assume she was a guest who’d taken a wrong turn.
So it was with smiling confidence that she glided to the ground floor, prepared to exit by the front entrance while the master entertained.
The smile froze on her lips when she heard her name spoken in astonishment.
“Lady Perry? How lovely of you to come and celebrate my birthday! I know how busy you always are.”
She’d turned instinctively at the sound of her name. Now with a stab of horror, she realised that finally, the Shadow had made a mistake.
Instead of being in the home of a cantankerous widower, stealing his pearls so he could claim for their loss, she’d entered the identical house next door – its gate unlatched, she now knew, for an entirely different reason!
She let her fingers feel the smooth stones secreted beneath her gown one more time, then forced a smile to her lips and enthusiasm to her cultured voice.
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