Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(8) by Lorraine Heath
“Am I?” He studied the boy. He was as slightly built as his mother, as pale. His eyes were huge and round, but Jack saw more curiosity within them than fear. “Are you afraid of me, lad?”
The boy peered up at his mother.
“Don’t look to your mother for the answer, lad. Look to yourself.”
“Do not take that tone with him,” the duchess commanded. “You are not yet his guardian.”
Jack didn’t know whether to envy the boy for the protectiveness of his mother—a protectiveness he wished his own mother had bestowed on him—or to pity him because she was raising him to be a milksop. By the age of six, Jack could survive the streets by cunning, cleverness, and nimble fingers. He’d not been afraid to take chances. He’d learned how to dodge those who wanted to catch him. He’d been quick on his feet, but even quicker with his mind.
“Skill will get ye only so far, boy, but thinkin’ will be wot keeps ye alive,” Feagan had told him.
Learning the tricks of the trade had given him confidence, which had led to success, which had made him daring and fearless. He’d gotten where he was because he’d survived. He wasn’t convinced this lad could wipe his own nose. Was that the reason the duke was turning his care over to Jack?
Jack had first met Lovingdon on a spring day in the Earl of Claybourne’s garden. Jack had been left with the impression that the duke was a sad man. Years later, the duke had visited Jack’s club a number of times, but nothing memorable had come of the occasions. At least nothing memorable from Jack’s point of view. Had the duke noticed something in Jack’s demeanor that indicated he had the wherewithal to be an effective guardian over this lad who was obviously mollycoddled? But even then, to give Jack everything he owned that wasn’t entailed? Jack was suspicious by nature, and his mind was screaming out warnings, insisting something was amiss. He just couldn’t figure out what, precisely.
Jack turned on his heel and headed toward the stairs.
“Where are you going?” the duchess asked, her shoes tapping rapidly behind him.
Lord, she was quick to follow. If his legs weren’t so long, he didn’t think he’d be able to outdistance her. “Not that it’s any of your concern, but I want to speak with Beckwith.”
Why was he bothering to explain himself? He explained himself to no one. He hadn’t since he’d decided to make the streets his home.
He hurried down the stairs, the duchess nipping at his heels like a rapacious dog. He strode through the hallway that displayed possessions that had no doubt been gathered for generations. The liveried footman opened the door to the library. Jack walked inside and quickly spun around to face the duchess, barring her entry.
She stumbled to an abrupt, jerky halt, her breathing labored, her golden eyes wide, her luscious lips parted. When her mouth wasn’t puckered up as though she spent her spare time sucking lemons, she had a damned kissable-looking mouth. It irritated him that he noticed, irritated him even more that he wondered what kissing her would be like.
“In private,” he said and slammed the door on her. Her infuriated shriek penetrated the thickness of the wood, bringing him a small sense of victory. Not trusting her to do as he bade, he turned the key in the lock. Fortunate that the duke had kept it handy. He was no doubt accustomed to dealing with his wife’s disagreeable moods and this room probably served as his sanctuary for solitude.
Jack sauntered toward Beckwith, who seemed innocently unaware of the turmoil roiling through Jack. The man was either a fool or as skilled at playing cards as Jack was. “It’s been a little more than fourteen years since you approached me with the news I had an anonymous benefactor. That’s the only reason I bothered to make an appearance tonight. Was my benefactor the Duke of Lovingdon?”
While it made absolutely no sense, that explanation was the only one Jack could come up with to explain this lunacy.
“I serve at the pleasure of many lords and gentlemen of considerable wealth, Mr. Dodger. Your benefactor wished to remain anonymous, and so he shall.”
“Are you saying he wasn’t Lovingdon?”
“I’m saying until your benefactor gives me leave to reveal his wishes, I will hold his confidence to the best of my ability.”
“What if I beat you to a bloody pulp? I suspect you’d find your ability isn’t what you think it is.”
Beckwith had the audacity to grin as though he were slightly amused. Jack didn’t like being made sport of, or worse, having his bluffs called. Swearing beneath his breath, he swept his hand over the will and ledgers. “This makes no sense.”
“Is it important that it does?”
“It’s important I understand why a man I spoke to on only a few occasions deemed it appropriate to give me so much for doing so little.”
“Being guardian of a lord of the realm is a grave, serious, and important task, Mr. Dodger. Don’t underestimate the power of your influence or the amount of work required to ensure the young lord becomes a man who can reach his potential.”
Jack laughed harshly. “Blast it all, man, that’s my point exactly. The duchess is correct. I am the last person who should serve as guardian and protector of her son. I abhor the aristocracy.”
“That’s unfortunate, especially as they are largely responsible for your unprecedented success. The duke felt differently regarding your qualifications for guiding his son into manhood. However, he also understood you cannot be forced to do that which you have no desire to do. You have twenty-four hours to give me your decision. At the end of that time, if you have not agreed to the terms and conditions of the will as presented to you this evening, your opportunity to gain all of this—and the final item—will have passed and the second will shall be brought into play.”
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