Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(18) by Lorraine Heath
“Not like the rookeries. It is absent of hope. It is not a place that allows in dreams. It’s drearily dismal.”
She looked at him as though he’d opened up his chest and shown her his heart. “You’re ashamed of your past.”
“I’m disgusted by it, yes.”
Angry at her and his words, he averted his gaze. How had she managed to take control of the conversation and direct it away from where it belonged—with him learning about her?
He was aware of her small hand covering the tight fist balled on his thigh. She squeezed gently. “You rose above your origins, Mr. Swindler. That’s to be admired. While I’ve heard tales of the rookeries, without actually seeing them, I can’t fully appreciate them.”
He twisted his head around to look at her, knowing his eyes and voice held a hard, implacable determination. “That’s my point, Miss Watkins. There is nothing about them to appreciate.”
He wondered what she was thinking as she studied his face, wondered exactly what it revealed. The harshness of the life he’d led? How, as he’d grown older, as he became more knowledgeable in the way of things, he came to abhor the life he’d lived? How the first time he’d felt any pride was when he led a constable to a boy who’d pilfered a money purse in order that the innocent boy who’d been arrested for the offense would be set free? How a gang of other boys had beaten him up for squealing on their mate—and so he’d learned to be secretive in his dealings with the police?
Even the rights and wrongs in life weren’t crystal clear. Compromises were made for the greater good. The problem there was: who decided the greater good?
He’d had the audacity on more than one occasion to believe it was him. Even now as he sought to gain her trust, to discover her plans, he wasn’t certain he’d provide Sir David or Rockberry with any information that could be of any use to them.
“You’re a complicated man, Mr. Swindler,” she finally said.
“Not complicated at all.” He unfurled his fist, turned his hand over, and threaded his fingers through hers. “All I need is a lovely lady to provide me with company.”
He watched her delicate throat work as she swallowed. “You claimed to be a scoundrel.”
He gave her one of his more charming smiles. “The evening is only just arriving, Miss Watkins.”
He’d planned to only be in her company for a couple of hours, but at the end of that time he wasn’t yet ready to let her go. Besides, if she was determined to seek Rockberry out at night, then Swindler was obligated to keep her occupied. He’d learned nothing while, if she was a perceptive woman—which he had little doubt she was—she’d learned a great deal. It bothered him that he could so easily reveal part of his soul to her. But it was only parts, bits, and pieces that she’d never be able to fit together properly in order to create the whole. He wasn’t even certain he knew the whole fabric of his being any longer.
When he’d become one of Feagan’s lads, he’d chosen a new name for himself: Swindler. While it was his nature to swindle others, of late he was beginning to suspect that perhaps he’d even managed to swindle himself into believing that his only interest in the woman stemmed from her fascination with Rockberry. Otherwise rather than taking her home, why did he return her to Cremorne Gardens?
“Why ever have you brought me here?” she asked as the driver brought the carriage to a halt on King’s Road.
“You’ve seen the worst of the gardens. I thought you should see the best.” He stepped out of the carriage and held out his hand to her. “We’ll leave long before the swells begin arriving.”
Her sister had written in her journal about the gardens and the spectacular display of bursting lights in the sky. “May we stay until after the fireworks?”
He gave her a generous smile that stole every bit of breath from her body. Oh, he was dangerous to her heart. She’d thought to take advantage, and instead she was finding herself enthralled by him.
“If it pleases you,” he fairly purred.
“It would very much.”
“Then stay we shall.”
After he handed her down from the carriage, he gave orders to the driver to return at nine. At the entrance, he paid a shilling for each of them, tucked her arm around his, and led her through the metal gates into the gardens. The crowd was dense. Ladies and gents strolled along arm in arm. She suspected most were married and those who weren’t had chaperones nearby. Even a few children could be seen. It was the time for families, for the proper people to be about. This was what Elisabeth had seen, what she’d written about in her journal.
“Did your sister visit the gardens?” Mr. Swindler asked.
She jerked her head up and held the familiar green gaze, seeing the compassion and understanding there. How was it that he was able to read her so well? “Yes. She wrote glowingly about the fireworks.”
“So although you were lost the other night, you knew where you were?”
“It’s possible to be lost, even when you know where you are,” she said tartly.
“Are you lost, Miss Watkins?”
His question contained an undercurrent, as though he recognized that of late she barely knew herself, had moments when she felt adrift at sea. Sometimes she thought coming to London was a mistake. She wasn’t comfortable here. It hemmed her in. Or maybe it was merely her quest for retribution that made her uncomfortable with her surroundings.
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