Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(16) by Lorraine Heath
He walked around the perimeter, studying the tables, the players, how the games seemed to be progressing. He noted the volume of noise. Rowdy men tended to spend more freely. He passed by one of the card tables where a game of brag was being played. A time existed when Luke spent a good deal of his evening there—not only because he was a partner but because he enjoyed a good game of cards. Since he was married, however, he was spending his nights with his wife. Not that Jack could blame him for that. She was quite a delectable piece.
As Jack passed by the cage where chips were bought, the man inside gave him a nod and quick grin, which meant business was good. He neared the room where women offered solace to the gentlemen who’d not been so lucky at the tables—or perhaps a woman was their choice of sin for the night. Standing in the doorway, he gave his eyes a moment to adjust. The room was dimly lit on purpose, to offer the illusion of secrecy. But no true secrets resided there. If Jack was of a mind, he could blackmail every man within these walls—but his business acumen was sharper than that. He provided a safe haven for men to indulge their whims. He’d learned at an early age that a person would pay almost anything for a safe haven.
A woman sitting on a gentleman’s lap caught his eye. Prudence had been with him the longest. Youth was beginning to fade from her features, but a good deal could be said for experience. She whispered to the man, then unfurled her lithe body and sauntered enticingly over to Jack. She wore her blond hair loose and flowing down her back. Having always lacked modesty, she wore little more than silk draped over her body.
“’ello, love.” She greeted him saucily. “Lookin’ fer me?”
Jack gave her a long look mixed with appreciation for what she offered physically as well as regret. It was always a good idea not to let a woman know that he didn’t desire her. Let her think it was something else that turned him away. “Not tonight, Pru.”
She frowned. “It’s been a while, Jack. ’aven’t found someone else, ’ave ye?”
“No, just distracted. How are things going with the other girls?”
Prudence oversaw the girls who worked here, made certain they understood the rules, stayed clean, weren’t abused. “Things are good, but I think yer goin’ to lose Annie. One of the lords offered to set ’er up as ’is mistress.”
“Does she want it?”
She nodded. “’e’s a good bloke.”
“Make sure she understands he’ll never marry her.”
“She knows, Jack. ’ell, we all know what we are.”
“What you are, Pru, is a bit of wickedness. Every now and then a man needs that.”
She winked at him. “Well, let me know when you need some. I’m still yer girl.”
With a flourish, she returned to where her gentleman waited for her. Lately Pru was the only working girl Jack availed himself of. He didn’t need jealousy among his girls. He paid Pru very, very well—not because she was particularly good, but because she never expected more from him than he was capable of giving.
He turned away from the room where men enjoyed the company of women.
Strolling back through the gaming room, he acknowledged a few of the gents. It was long after midnight, but still the room was crowded and spirits were high. Sin possessed no timepiece, which suited Jack well as he required little sleep.
He shoved open the door that led to the back rooms where his business was managed. He stopped by an open doorway, leaned against the doorjamb, and watched as Frannie Darling made precise notations in his ledgers. She’d been one of Feagan’s children as well—the only one whose skillful hands had matched Jack’s. No one had ever brought in as much booty as the two of them had.
Her red hair was pulled back into a bun, but it didn’t seem to draw the skin tautly across her cheeks the way the duchess’s had. Like the duchess, she also wore black, not because she was in mourning, but because she didn’t wish to draw attention to herself. Jack had once bought her a dress of emerald green. He preferred bold colors and had thought she’d look beautiful in it. She’d blushed and thanked him profusely, but as far as he knew, she’d never worn it. She didn’t like for gents to notice her, but notice her they did. Jack didn’t think a single one of Feagan’s lads hadn’t fallen in love with her at one time or another. Even he wasn’t immune to her charms.
Looking up, Frannie gave him the impish, shy smile that had won many a lad’s heart. “There you are. You were gone a rather long time.”
“The meeting turned out to be far more complicated than I expected.”
“Did you want to talk about it?”
“Not particularly, but you need to be aware of some changes that are likely to occur.”
“I’m not certain I like the sound of that.”
Stepping inside, he glanced around. Unlike the residence he’d just left, this room was sparsely furnished with a desk and three chairs. The walls were plain. One set of small shelves held the ledgers that provided a history of his business. Against another wall was a couch. He wasn’t certain what she used it for. She certainly didn’t sleep there. Her bed was in an apartment accessed through an alley and stairs at the back of the building. He had his own apartment there as well, as did most of his employees. Cost him a bloody fortune, but a happy worker didn’t take from the till.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Frannie said.
Shaking his head, Jack took a step nearer and folded his hands around the top of the leather chair in front of her desk. “I spent too much of the night sitting.” He jerked his head toward the open books spread across her desk. Frannie was a genius when it came to ciphering. Perhaps because Feagan would sit her on his lap and let her count the handkerchiefs and coins that the others collected through the day. He might not have realized it, but he’d given her a skill that served them all very well. “Did we have a profitable night?”
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