Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(12) by Lorraine Heath
With a footman carrying a lantern and leading the way, and another carrying her son, Olivia dashed out into the night. Down the grand steps that led up to the home she’d fallen in love with. Scurrying off into the darkness of night left a crushing ache in her chest. If she were a weaker woman, she thought she’d succumb to tears, but they wouldn’t change her circumstance. She had to remain strong for Henry. She had to protect him at all costs. She knew Jack Dodger’s sort. He wanted everything easily, without effort. Once they were gone, he’d not bother to come after them. He would have the residence and its contents, which she was convinced was all he truly wanted.
She hurried across the cobblestone drive, aware of the thick fog absorbing and muting the echo of her footsteps. This night seemed perfectly designed for stealing away.
A liveried footman opened the door to the waiting coach and assisted her inside. As she settled onto the plush bench, she became aware of a familiar scent—
“Going somewhere, Duchess?”
She released a blood-curdling scream at the unexpected smoky voice reverberating from the shadowy corner of the coach. She might have continued to scream if not for the infuriatingly dark chuckle that quickly followed. She now knew the echo of Satan’s laughter, and it was not a sound that invited others to join in the merriment.
“Your Grace?” one of the footmen questioned.
“She’s fine,” Jack Dodger said as he grabbed the lantern from the footman and hung it from an inside hook, the lantern’s golden glow illuminating the confines of the coach, illuminating him. He somehow managed to look amused and irritated at the same time. And so very, very dangerous.
Just inside the doorway, still held by the other footman, Henry had yelled when she’d screamed and now he was crying forcefully. Reaching out, she took him and pressed her trembling child to her quaking bosom. “Shh. Henry, it’s all right. Mummy just had a fright, that’s all. But this man will not harm you, darling. I promise you that.”
As though reassured by her words, Henry stopped his crying and began to noisily suck his thumb. It was a habit of which Olivia wasn’t particularly fond, but neither she nor his nanny had encountered any success in breaking it. At that particular moment, it didn’t seem worth the bother of worrying over. She had much larger concerns to address.
If she were prone to using obscenities, Olivia thought, now would be a good time to spew a few. Jack Dodger appeared larger than before, and more ominous. She liked him even less and decided she’d had quite enough of him for the evening.
“What are you doing here?” Olivia demanded, in her most officious voice, the one she used when she caught servants slacking at their duties.
“The question, Duchess, is what are you doing? According to this book”—he tapped the ledger he held up as though its contents were gospel—“this coach is my property. Are you seeking to steal it from me?”
“How can it be your property? It bears the ducal crest.”
“I suppose you make a valid point. I should have the crest removed posthaste as it does create confusion.”
“It was the duke’s coach.”
“But unfortunately for you, it was purchased with non-entailed funds.”
“You read that in the dark?”
“No, I read it in the library. I have an astonishingly good memory. I have but to read something once and it is as though a picture is drawn in my mind. But I doubt you truly have any real interest in my talent, so let us return to my original question. Are you seeking to steal from me? Do I need to send ’round for a constable?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I was just taking Henry to the countryside.”
“In the dead of night?” Mr. Dodger asked.
“It’s a cooler time to travel, and Henry is prone to sleeping when we travel at night. As I don’t then have to keep him entertained, it makes for a much more pleasant journey for all involved, and I’m not sure why I’m explaining myself to you.”
“I’ve found people usually go to the bother of explaining when they realize they’re at fault.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong.” But her words sounded defensive and weak even to her own ears.
“Here’s the problem as I see it. I’m Henry’s guardian. If he’s in the country then I cannot effectively guard him.”
She could have sworn she heard humor laced through his voice. Did he think this was all some grand joke, that tonight’s revelations had been designed for his amusement? She bit back harsh words that would gain her nothing except his anger. “As guardian, you don’t have to actually guard him. You simply oversee his welfare, and you can do that by entrusting him to my care and letting me take him to the country.”
“I’m not certain that’s in his best interest.”
“How can it not be?”
“You’re raising a pansy. He screamed louder than you did.”
“I resent that implication. You frightened us, lurking about in the shadows where you weren’t expected—like some miscreant. Why weren’t you standing outside the coach, as any decent person would? I think you deliberately sought to unsettle me.”
“I think you’re well aware that I’m hardly decent.” He had the audacity to smile, all the while tapping that blasted ledger.
“You find this situation amusing?” she snapped.
“I find it vastly challenging.”
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