Rules of Deception

Prologue

19th Century England

Victoria Anne Cunningham was certain that if her mother ever caught wind of her trespassing, she would be lectured for being audacious, unladylike, and atrociously rude, but she did not care. Having just launched herself over a fence that was nearly as tall as her thirteen year old self, Victoria was unconcerned with the incriminating grass stains on her pale blue dress. Her stocking was torn and her blonde ringlets were fast coming undone from their plaits, but this did not bother her.

The only regret Victoria had was the fact that she could hear her best friend running to catch up with her.

Not that she did not want Rosalind to follow, but she was sure to tattle, and Victoria couldn't abide by someone who leaked secrets. Even if it was her best friend.

Swiftly, not waiting for the dark-haired Rosalind to catch up, Victoria slinked up to a thick laurel hedge and peered around the edge. On the other side, a long-legged, leanly muscled man sparred with his partner, shirtless and gleaming in the midsummer sun. He moved with catlike grace, easily deflecting the blows of his opponent.

Victoria studied him unabashedly. She could tell by the twist of his saccharine lips and the amusement in his dark eyes that he was merely toying with the other man.

"Victoria, we're going to get in trouble!" Rosalind was crouched beside her, panting a little, brown eyes worried, hair hanging limply around her sweet face.

"So go home, then." Victoria watched with fascination as the dark-haired man defeated his opponent and then shook hands. A woman Victoria had not seen before stood from a bench in the garden and strolled up to the man's side. Her lips just barely touched his cheek as she applauded him for the win. Every move she made was stiff, proper.

Rosalind tugged at her sleeve. "Vicky, come on! If they see us, we'll get a whipping for sure."

Victoria pushed Rosalind's hand away and pulled back from the opening of the hedge. "One day, I'm going to live there. I'm going to marry him."

The darker haired girl shook her head. "Why would you want to do that?"

"Well, he's rich." Victoria peeked through the hedge again, watching as the two men sparred.

Rosalind's mouth fell open. "Victoria!"

"What?" The blonde girl smiled slyly, glancing at her friend with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

"That's horrible! He's nearly thirty-three! By the time you're old enough to marry, he'll be almost forty!" Rosalind chanced a peek around the hedge, and then jerked back. "Besides," she whispered, "he's already got a woman with him."

Victoria peered around the hedge again, grazing over the woman's expensive gown and white skin with no envy. "She won't last him long." She pursed her lips. "They never do."

Rosalind bit her lips. "What makes you think you'd be any different?"

With a little snort, Victoria flipped back her hair. "I'm not a lady."

Rosalind gasped, but Victoria immediately realized it was not because of her statement. The hedge behind her made a noise as if someone had just brushed against it, and a shadow loomed over them. Putting on as innocent an expression as she could muster, Victoria stood up, brushed off her dress, and turned to face Sir James Edward Bellamy, Lord of Blackthorne Manor, richest man in the county.

"Hello, girls." James studied Victoria with his chocolate-colored eyes, and she gave him a smile. "What, may I ask, are you doing on my property, without my permission?"

Rosalind was already backing away, but Victoria stood her ground. "Just out to enjoy the weather, Sir James. Your gardens are especially beautiful at this time of year."

"I see." Sir James raised one eyebrow, and the corner of his lips twitched upward. "I think you had better run along home before your mothers discover you've been trespassing."

"Yes sir!" Rosalind breathed, snatching Victoria's hand and dragging her away.

But as they ran back the way they had come, Victoria glanced back, and saw that Sir James waited until they were safely over the fence before he turned back to his sparring. There was a smile on his face.

"Yes," Victoria whispered to herself. "I'm going to marry him."

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I know; I should be finishing the million and one other stories I have up, but I'm no longer going to play by the rule of "finish one thing before you post another." ;) It may take me years to finish one story and months to finish another, but whatever I'm working on that I know I will eventually finish, I want to share with you. I hope you'll forgive my lack of focus and just enjoy the stories I've shared.

(I'd put a little heart here if I could)

Mara