Between the Devil and Desire(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 2)(70) by Lorraine Heath
Jack tapped a bottle. “I brought you something you value more.”
“That ye did.”
Shoving back his chair, Jack stood. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“That ye will, me dodger, that ye will.”
Jack took one last look around the squalor, remembering a time when his goal in life had been to be a more successful kidsman than Feagan. It irked him not to know who his anonymous benefactor was. If not for him, even with the teachings of Luke’s grandfather, Jack knew he would have returned to this foulness and lived a life only marginally better than Feagan’s.
Jack was teaching Henry to be slippery, nimble, quick…in essence, to be a dodger.
Sitting on the terrace and watching her son dash across the lawn, Olivia wasn’t certain how she felt about that development. She supposed no harm would come of it, as long as Jack wasn’t instructing Henry on the proper way to slip his hands into pockets without being detected.
In this particular game a ball was involved, but Olivia couldn’t determine what the object was or how the game was played. She wasn’t certain the players even knew. They were content to grab the ball, run with it, and avoid getting caught. It was a rather undignified game for grown men to be involved in, especially when one was an earl. The Devil Earl, to be precise.
Olivia had never met him before this afternoon. With his dark hair and silver eyes, he was almost as devilishly handsome as Jack.
“It must be something they played on the streets,” Catherine, the Countess of Claybourne, said. Dressed in somber black, still mourning her father, she sat at the table with Olivia. She and her husband had arrived shortly after Jack had taken Henry outside for what was becoming a daily afternoon ritual. Within minutes Claybourne had followed Jack’s example and discarded his jacket, cravat, and waistcoat; then he rolled up his sleeves in order to gallivant over the lawn unhindered and give chase to Henry, who would run from one end of the lawn to the other carrying the ball and avoiding capture.
Coming to a stop, he’d jump up and down, hold the ball high, and crow, “I won! I won!”
Then they’d start at it again. The puppy was also involved, following Henry, darting in and out, sometimes tripping up the men—who laughed. Olivia couldn’t remember a single time that so much merriment had been exhibited in their garden.
“Do you think that’s how they learned not to get caught when they stole something?” Olivia asked, imagining the ball symbolizing a loaf of bread or a melon.
“Possibly.” The countess laughed lightly, then quieted. “Probably.”
She didn’t sound at all disturbed by the idea. Her voice carried a bit of wistfulness, as though she thought about her husband’s earlier life and wished it had been different. A time existed when many of the aristocracy weren’t convinced he was the true heir, but something had happened to change their minds, although Olivia was unsure as to the particulars. “I never doubted for a moment,” Lovingdon had mentioned to Olivia in passing. “Resembles his father too much not to be.”
“We came to visit several days ago, only to learn you were ill,” Catherine said quietly now. “I’m glad you’ve recovered.”
“Thank you. I’m feeling much better.” She was acquainted with Catherine, although they’d never been dear friends, and she certainly wasn’t going to confess that she was well enough to go to the Great Exhibition.
“I suppose some of your ill health may be attributed to the shock of learning Mr. Dodger was to serve as your son’s guardian.”
Olivia shifted her gaze over to Catherine. She saw no censure, only a need to reassure. Two weeks ago, Olivia might have welcomed the reassurance. Now, she hardly felt any need for it. Jack was proving his suitability as guardian quite admirably.
“If it’s any consolation,” Catherine continued, “he’ll serve as guardian of our children as well.”
Olivia felt her jaw drop. “Not your brother?” Not the Duke of Greystone?
Catherine shook her head. “Sterling was gone for some time. Since he’s returned, he seems very different. I can’t explain it. And Claybourne doesn’t know him at all, so he’s not comfortable with the notion of Sterling serving as guardian. Jack Dodger he trusts. Mr. Dodger saved his life on more than one occasion.”
Olivia sipped her tea, wondering how all that had come about. Had it happened in prison? Why hadn’t he shared that story? She’d not ask Catherine for an explanation. Strange how Olivia suddenly felt uncomfortable remembering all the afternoon teas and speculations the ladies had made regarding him, each one eager to share the latest bit of unsavory gossip that had come her way. They’d treated him as a curiosity, not a man. In retrospect, it had been quite rude.
Now, Olivia didn’t want gossip. She wanted to know the truth of his life, from his own lips. They’d settled into an easier camaraderie of late. They had breakfast every morning with Henry. In the evening, she dined with Jack alone. He asked her questions about herself: what she enjoyed reading, her theater preferences, how her day had gone. He gave away very little of himself. It occurred to her one night that he was striving to create a mental portrait of her so that he could better determine whom she might marry.
“What’s your opinion of Mr. Dodger?” Olivia asked.
Catherine turned her gaze back to the men and boy lumbering over the lawn. “Quite honestly, when I met him, I didn’t like him. He was insolent and has an exceedingly low opinion of the nobility. But I trust Claybourne and his judgment. Of course, it could also be that I don’t believe anyone will ever raise his children other than him, so I don’t really worry about it. It seems when a person has such a rough life in his youth that his later life should be filled with nothing except pleasantries.”
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