Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(23) by Lorraine Heath
Her husband followed closely behind her. He was fair, well-turned-out. His mantle was his title. He could have been wearing nothing at all and he still would have commanded respect, still would have drawn attention when he strode into a room.
Coming to a stop before Swindler, Frannie took his large hands in her delicate ones and squeezed tightly. Having been brutalized as a child, she’d always been extremely reserved with her hugs, so he hadn’t expected one in welcome. What surprised him was that neither did he desire one. It seemed when he thought of a woman holding him, the only image that came to mind was that of Eleanor.
“Your Grace,” he said to her, then nodded at Greystone.
“Oh, Jim, please, I’m still Frannie. Don’t be formal with me. I’ll take it as an insult.”
“You’re a duchess now.”
“I’m your friend, aren’t I?”
He could see in the green depths of her eyes how important his answer was. “Yes, of course you are.”
She smiled happily at him. “It’s so good to see you.”
“You’re looking well.”
He’d have thought it impossible but her smile grew. “The South of France was wonderful. Sterling and I had a marvelous time.”
Even knowing that marvelous time would have included lovemaking, Swindler felt no jealousy. He felt nothing except gladness that Frannie was so obviously happy.
“We’ve been home for a couple of days now,” Frannie said. “I was afraid…I’m glad you came by to visit. Shall we go into the parlor?”
She didn’t wait for an answer but stole her arm around his and led the way.
“What can I offer you to drink, Swindler?” Greystone asked as he walked to a table with decanters.
“Nothing, thank you. I fear this isn’t exactly a social call.”
“Scotland Yard sent you here?” Frannie asked as she sat on the settee. Swindler dropped into a chair opposite her while Greystone took his place beside her.
“Not intentionally, no. But I’m in need of a bit of assistance with a case I’m working.”
“What sort of assistance?” Frannie asked.
“I understand you’re having a ball tomorrow night.”
“Yes, Sterling thought it essential for the new Duchess of Greystone to host a party as soon as we returned from our wedding trip. Catherine’s been handling the particulars.”
“I would like you to invite Miss Eleanor Watkins. Her father was a viscount, so it wouldn’t be inappropriate for her to attend.”
“Good Lord, Jim, she could be a washerwoman, and if you have an interest in her, I would invite her. I suppose I’m to invite you as well.”
“Yes, if you don’t mind. She may also need a gown.”
“She’s not here for the Season?”
“No, I believe she’s here for revenge.”
“Revenge sounds like something that will put my wife in harm’s way,” Greystone said. “If that’s the case, then we can’t be of help.”
“I almost lost you once, Frannie. I’ll not risk it again.”
With amusement, Swindler watched the silent battle of wills. Apparently the duke had yet to discover that his duchess possessed a very stubborn streak. She finally turned her attention to Swindler. “Tell me about the lady.”
Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward, digging his elbows into his thighs. He explained how she’d come to his attention. “She quite simply fascinates me, but I’ve never told her my true purpose, what it is I intend to gain from her. Sometimes I feel as though I’m back under Feagan’s employ, working so bloody hard to fleece someone without him knowing.”
“You’re doing your job.”
“That’s just it, Frannie. I’m not, not really. I’m simply enjoying her company. I’d hoped in time that she’d come to trust me, confide in me, tell me of her plans regarding Rockberry. But she avoids discussing him at every turn. The time has come for me to bring this matter to a close. I must confront her, and when I do, whatever tender regard she might have toward me is certain to sour. I would like to give her this night at your ball, a gift as it were, before she discovers that I’ve been deceiving her.”
Frannie placed her hand over his. “Have you been deceiving her, Jim?”
“I’m no longer sure. I’ve come to care for her, but I must tell her the truth about what I know and what I need to know. I fear she won’t be pleased to learn the truth.”
Rockberry had taken advantage of her sister. She was likely to think Swindler had done the same. He was dreading the confrontation and was hoping one final night of happiness would soften the blow he would deliver.
“Miss Watkins! Miss Watkins!”
The resounding knock nearly rattled the door to her rooms off its hinges. Eleanor crossed over as quickly as possible and flung it open. “Yes, Mrs. Potter?”
The woman was breathing heavily, her face flushed with excitement. “You have a caller. The Duchess of Greystone herself. My word.” She pressed her hand to her heaving bosom.
“Nobility in my parlor. I never imagined…What tea should I prepare, do you think? Oh, it doesn’t matter. I shall prepare every flavor I have. I do wish I had cake. Biscuits seem so trite. Hurry. You mustn’t keep Her Grace waiting.”
As her landlady scurried down the hallway toward the stairs, Eleanor followed at a more sedate pace, her stomach quivering with nervousness. Why ever had the duchess come to call?
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