Vanity by Jane Feather Read Free Book Online

Book: Vanity by Jane Feather Read Free Book Online
Authors: Jane Feather
soft dawn.
    Since the disaster Octavia had had no one to talk to, no one to share her desperate struggles or to listen to the fierce bubbling rage of helplessness. She’d fought alone to keep herself and her father out of the workhouse, biting her tongue when the urge to heap angry recriminations on his head had become almost overpowering. She could say nothing to him because he didn’t understand their situation. He had no idea they were penniless, no idea of the means she was forced to adopt to keep them from starvation. The invitation to speak of the unspeakable suddenly became irresistible. The highwayman would understand her life because, as he’d said earlier, in some ways they were two of a kind.
    She pushed her plate away.
    “My father is a very clever scholar but a fool in the ways of the world,” she stated. “And since his … his misfortune he has withdrawn even further into his books. He sees and hears nothing outside his texts. Three years ago he had a sizable fortune, enough to keep him in comfort and to provide me with a respectable dowry, only—only he fell among thieves.”
    She looked bleakly across the table. “If I’d been there, it wouldn’t have happened, but I was away visiting an aunt, and while I was gone, two men wormed their way into hisconfidence and persuaded him to invest heavily in a silver mine in Peru. Needless to say, the mine does not exist.”
    “I see,” he said neutrally. There were thieves and rogues at every level of society, even at court, ready to prey on the unwary under the guise of friendship. “So your father lost everything.”
    “Yes, but his
appear to be doing very well,” she said bitterly. “They live high at court, and now inhabit my family home. They lent him money with the house as security to meet the original cost of his investment. Needless to say, they were very sorry when they were obliged to foreclose.”
    Her mouth was tight, and he read murder again in her eyes. “The whoresons allowed him to take his books. But I daresay they had no use for them.”
    “What of your mother?”
    “She died when I was born. There’s only ever been the two of us.”
    Silence fell, broken only by the spurt of flame as a piece of green wood caught in the hearth. A log shifted, and the highwayman rose from the table to mend the fire. “But why choose a life of crime? You’re presumably well educated—you could go for a governess.”
    “Or a lady’s maid,” she said sardonically. “Yes, I suppose I could go into service … it would be the respectable way of dealing with our difficulties. But as I said before, I haven’t been educated to consider myself a servant. I’d rather die.”
    Exultation surged in his veins. Octavia Morgan was made to be the perfect accomplice. But he merely said coolly, “Pride, Miss Morgan?”
    “Do you not understand it?” she fired back.
    “Oh, yes,” he said, straightening from the fire and turning back to the room. “Oh, yes,
understand it. But many would consider thievery more humbling than honest toil.”
    She met his eye as he scrutinized her pale, set face. “Perhaps.”
    He knew what she was thinking: that servants werealmost universally exploited and demeaned, the gap between them and their employers as vast as between a slave and his master in ancient Rome. If one were bred to the life, then perhaps one could live it with some self-esteem, but if one were not, then it would indeed be a living death.
    “You don’t dream of revenge?” He raised an eyebrow.
    “I might dream about it,” she said. “But I live too close to reality to indulge in fantasy, sir. I make shift as I can, and when things become impossible …” She shrugged and sipped her wine. “Why, then I turn to thievery. I do less harm than those who robbed my father. I take a little from many people … not everything from one. No one is ruined by my activities.”
    “Nor by mine, I believe,” he remarked, returning to the table. “Do

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