Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(46) by Lorraine Heath
With the storm, the darkness was arriving earlier. Candles flickered on the table. Dishes were passed around, mutton, potatoes, and beans heaped on plates, and silence reigned, except for the occasional scraping of silver over china.
What surprised Emma was that James had come to the table cleanly shaven, once again wearing his waistcoat, neckcloth, and jacket. No matter how he appeared—like a ruffian or a gentleman—the sight of him did strange things to her stomach, made it flip over again and again. He sat at the head of the table while she and Eleanor were on either side of him. Her father had never commanded that seat as James did—as naturally as though he were a king. She fought not to imagine how satisfying it would be to see James in that spot every night. He was not made for the quiet life here near the coast. Although at that moment, the night was anything but quiet as the windows rattled.
“Is there the slightest chance this house will be blown into the sea?” he asked calmly.
“No,” Emma assured him. “As the wind is coming from the sea, I suspect if it were to be blown anywhere, it would be blown into the village.”
His eyes glinted with amusement. She could almost forget that he was here for a reason that was anything except humorous.
She fought not to wonder—if she’d been the daughter chosen to go to London last Season, if she might have met him at any balls. Would he have looked across the room and noticed her?
Would he have asked her to dance? Would the attraction between them have sparked as quickly when mystery surrounded them?
He studied her now over his wineglass. Earlier he’d brought an unopened bottle up from the cellar, opened it, poured it himself, and not allowed it to leave his sight. Slowly, almost suspiciously, he shifted his attention to Eleanor, then returned it to Emma. “When I questioned your landlady, she was aware of only one lady staying in the hired rooms.”
“Don’t say anything, Emma,” Eleanor ordered sternly. “Presently he comes to us with little more than speculation and conjecture. He can prove nothing. There is no evidence that you were ever in London.”
His uncompromising gaze settled more firmly on Emma. “Because wherever you went, whatever you did, you claimed to be Eleanor. I believe you always planned to be somewhere, with someone, while Eleanor saw to the deed. I fit rather nicely into your little scheme.”
“Yes.” She forced the word up from a pit of regret. She’d hoped to use someone of Rockberry’s ilk, not quite as dastardly as he but a man who deserved to be used. She’d never expected someone like James, with a moral compass that always pointed to decency, honor, and principles.
With his finger, he slowly tapped his wineglass, tap, tap, tap, as though he was locking pieces of a puzzle together. His finger stilled, extended as though he needed to make a point.
“It might have worked…if you hadn’t left incredibly quickly—without so much as a goodbye.” The heat in his eyes almost matched that of the small fire in the hearth. “Especially after…the intimacy we’d shared.”
He wanted to hurt her, wanted to throw back in her face what she’d given him. She could see that also in his gaze, and she supposed she deserved it.
“What trouble could you get into in a carriage?” Eleanor asked. Dear Lord, but she had no idea. Emma wasn’t about to provide particulars, especially as most of the intimacy had not taken place in the carriage. “I wanted to wait, I wanted to see you again, but I was afraid you’d see the truth of it in my eyes.”
He didn’t ask which truth: the truth that she’d helped take a man’s life, the truth that she’d fallen in love with him, the truth that her last night with him had been the most glorious of her life. Perhaps he realized the enormity of her reasons for leaving, because he returned his attention to his food. For several minutes the silence and awkwardness returned. She suspected they were all pondering the gravity of their intertwined lives. Deception didn’t provide a sturdy foundation on which to build anything that would last. Even her relationship with Eleanor had become strained since they’d returned from London.
“So you grew up in this area.”
His sudden voice in the silence was like a crack of thunder. Emma startled and Eleanor went so far as to drop her fork on her plate. He’d not worded his statement as a question, yet Emma thought it required some response. She peered over at Eleanor, who’d retrieved her fork and was occupied moving her food from one side of her plate to the other.
“Yes,” Emma said. “We were born in this house. It’s been in the family for two generations, hardly any time at all when you consider how long England has existed.”
“Have you no servants?”
“We did before Father passed. We had a cook, a maid of all work, and a male servant who served as butler and footman.” She knew she was rambling. What did he care about the particulars regarding their servants? But she could hardly tolerate the tension and the awkwardness emanating from her and Eleanor. James, on the other hand, was distant yet still appeared comfortable with his surroundings. “Are you attempting to tell us that the food is awful?”
“I’ve had much worse.”
Wiping her damp hands on the napkin in her lap, she remembered that he’d never been outside of London before now. She would have dearly loved to be beside him as he took in the countryside. “Did you enjoy the sights as you journeyed from London?”
“I hardly noticed them.”
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