Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(23) by Lorraine Heath
She’d have thought Jack—no, she couldn’t think of him as Jack—would have preferred the shadows as well.
Jack stood at the window in his library, gazing out on his well-manicured garden. His garden, viewed through his window from his library. He’d planned to study his ledger further, but he’d been unable to concentrate.
He’d been unprepared for the way the sound of his name rolling off the widow’s tongue had made him feel. He’d wanted to ask her to say it again. He’d wanted to move closer to her and talk in hushed tones so the servants couldn’t hear. He wanted to know why she truly objected to a dog. He wanted to ask what she knew of broken hearts.
Mesmerized by the play of sunlight dancing over the red in her brown hair, he’d remembered the way it had felt unfurling in his hand. He welcomed her disdain because it kept his own desires leashed.
He pressed his shoulder against the sharp corner of the window casement, ignoring the cutting bite. She’d bristled at his mocking use of Duchess, but her tone was no different. He heard the censure in her voice every time she called him Mr. Dodger. She knew what he was as well as he did: the bastard son of a whore, his father unknown to him, probably a stranger to his mother.
He heard the door open, but he stayed where he was. Her light footsteps grew louder as she neared, until he smelled her wispy fragrance. He didn’t want to consider the joy that might be found in discovering the other secret spots where she applied it. She came to stand across from him, the damnable sunlight again catching her hair in ways that made him want to touch it, plow his fingers into it, and not be nearly as careful as he’d been the night before when removing the pins.
“Do you really not know who your father is?” she asked quietly.
That discussion was conversations ago, and he saw no reason to return to it, although it did occur to him that she might have been thinking about him as much as he’d been thinking about her since leaving the breakfast room. He suspected, however, that her thoughts focused on his faults, while he was reluctantly beginning to recognize her merits.
“I think we would do best to stick with the business at hand. What do you know of the nanny?”
Her golden eyes widened slightly in surprise. “Helen? She comes highly recommended. Both the duke and I have been incredibly pleased with her service. Why do you ask?”
“The boy seems far too quiet.”
“Children are supposed to be quiet and well mannered—”
He laughed softly at the memories of his own childhood. “Not the children I knew.”
“You grew up in the streets, Mr. Dodger. My son grows up in a home.”
“Yet he is fearful, while I was not.”
“He is simply reserved, as his father was.”
Jack bit back the need to ask if he’d held on to that reserve when he’d taken her to his bed. Why was he so curious about the intimate details of their lives?
She looked out the window. “Last night you said that you barely knew Lovingdon. How was it that you knew him at all? Did he go to your club?”
“On occasion. What do you know of my club?”
“That it’s a place well suited to scoundrels.”
He hitched up a corner of his mouth. “You say that as though I force people to partake in scandalous behavior. I don’t.”
“You provide them with the opportunity.”
“You see? There again, your tone implies it’s a bad thing. Those who enjoy being wicked can’t be stopped. They will go into the darkest alleys to find a gambling den, or liquor, or women. If it’s a dishonest game, even if they win, everything will be taken from them, possibly even their lives. When they purchase a bottle, they don’t know what’s in it. Sometimes it’s nothing more than piss.” He held up his hand to stop the protest at his language that he was certain she was about to issue. “And the ladies: from the ladies they can get all sorts of ailments, some that will make them go blind or rob them of their sanity.
“And so, yes, I provide gentlemen with a safe haven, where the games are honest, the liquor is the best to be made, and the ladies are clean.”
“I’m left with the impression you somehow consider your actions noble.”
“As I said, you can’t stop someone who is determined to enjoy wickedness. Why should I not profit from others’ weaknesses? I’ve become very wealthy, and whom have I harmed?” Damn it all. Why was he standing there explaining his life, his choices, his actions? He’d always known others found fault with his endeavors, but he didn’t, and that was all that mattered to him. He’d never cared for others’ opinions.
“I suspect you harm without realizing it,” she said.
That was the problem when arguing with the righteous: they didn’t listen to the merits of the argument. “Be that as it may, I have no intention of harming your son.”
She glanced over to the corner where yesterday a table had been covered with an assortment of clocks as though the duke had been trying to collect time. Now a variety of bottles and decanters were beautifully arranged and within easy reach of his desk.
“You’ve already brought spirits into the house,” she said, and he heard the censure in her voice.
“But I won’t force you to drink them.”
“I never would.”
“What did you do with my husband’s clocks?” she asked tartly.
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