Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(6) by Lorraine Heath
So he’d stormed from the room because he’d learned that sometimes retreat could lead to victory. Sometimes effective strategy required a restocking of the arsenal or a bit of breathing room so a man could think clearly and make sense of things.
What sort of lunatic was Lovingdon to appoint Jack guardian of anything? The nobles were so protective of their heirs. It was ludicrous to place the lad in Jack’s keeping. Still, it angered him that the widow was so appalled by the notion. He should accept the terms of the will simply to irritate her further. But he’d never been one to base his decisions on immediate reactions. He’d always thought out his strategy, always looked at things from every angle. Although in this situation the angle of inheritance was looming enticingly large and threatening to overshadow his common sense. While Jack had accumulated quite a bit of wealth over the years, his coffers weren’t yet to the point that he wanted to spend his money on a palace such as this. It was monstrously huge and overflowing with statuettes, figurines, artwork, handsome handcrafted furniture, and everything else imaginable.
In his mind, he heard Feagan cackling. “Ye finally made it, boy. A fancy place in St. James. Who’d a thought?”
Certainly not Jack.
He had a practiced eye when it came to identifying valuables and the good duke had accumulated a fortune’s worth. It was also evident that the family, from the first duke to the last, thought highly of themselves. Why else have all the portraits painted of various stages in their lives, from birth to old age? God, the nobility was an amazing lot—to think anyone would care what they looked like. On the other hand, judging by the number of portraits hanging on the walls throughout, someone obviously did care. Maybe he’d sell them to the heir for a pretty penny.
As though reading his thoughts, the duchess said, “I’m certain when Mr. Beckwith said ‘everything’ he didn’t mean everything. The portraits are obviously part of the entailment.”
“How did you come to that conclusion, Duchess?”
“They are portraits of the dukes and their families, my son’s ancestors. There can be no doubt they are part of his inheritance.”
“We’ll see.” She made a reasonable argument, but he planned to study the ledger more closely, to memorize and account for every item. He’d not let her take anything that had been designated as his—not without paying a fair price for it. He had no intention of taking advantage of her, but neither was it in his nature to be charitable.
“I wonder what funds were used to purchase your clothing,” he murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
He came to a stop outside the third dining room he’d passed, and she almost rammed into him. Her fragrance did, teasing his nostrils now just as it had in the library. Sitting there, he’d wanted to lean toward her and inhale it more fully. Her scent was a subtle lavender, not the cloyingly harsh musk that prostitutes used to cover the odor of their business and other men.
Her face was set in a worried frown that drew her brows together over unusual amber eyes. From the start, their shade—almost gold, just like the color of the coins he favored—had caught his attention.
The top of the widow’s head barely came to his shoulder. She was terribly young for a widow. She had to have been a child when the duke married her. With their difference in age, he would have been an old man to her. Had she loved him? Or had she simply wanted the title and everything that came with it?
“I was just wondering if your clothing was part of the entailment,” he drawled.
Anger flashed over her features. “My clothing, sir, is mine. You’ll not take it from me.”
“Don’t challenge me, Duchess, or I might be tempted to prove I could remove those widow’s weeds before you could stammer an objection.”
“Oh, you blackguard.”
Turning away from her, he tried not to take delight in pricking her temper. Not very gentlemanly on his part, but then he’d never claimed to be a gentleman. He had yet to meet one who wasn’t a hypocrite. Better to admit to being a scoundrel, more honesty in that. He didn’t pretend to be what he wasn’t.
Impatient, he headed back the way he’d come. He had to give the duke credit: he’d spent his money wisely.
Beneath his breath, he cursed a man he’d barely known, a man who had obviously judged Jack very well. Everything Jack saw, he wanted. He wanted to look at it and know that he owned it. He wanted to tear down the brick walls, replace them with glass, and let the world catch a glimpse of what Jack Dodger possessed. He wanted to gloat. He, the son of a whore, had not been trampled down by society. He’d risen above his beginnings. He’d conquered London.
By God, that was how it felt, walking through these magnificent hallways with their gilded trim and their painted ceilings. It could all be his for a very small price.
How much trouble could it be to serve as guardian of one boy? Of course, the real question was: how irritating would it be to deal with the merry widow? She was the type of woman he abhorred. Self-righteous, judgmental, thinking she was so much better than others. He’d like nothing more than to take her down a peg or two. Maybe that was the reason he’d brought up the subject of her clothing—certainly not because he’d been considering what it might be like to divest her of it.
Her black dress had far too many buttons to be of interest to him. They ran from waist to chin, from wrist to elbow. He imagined when she was out of mourning her clothes were just as boring. She struck him as someone who would think temptation ultimately led to hell, and that path was not to be traveled at any cost. Her dull brown hair was pinned up, a widow’s cap covering most of it, leaving him to wonder how long it might be. Then he cursed himself for wondering anything at all about her personal intimacies.
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