Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(48) by Lorraine Heath
As though aware of the distressing thoughts plowing through her mind, he said, “I shouldn’t worry about it overmuch, if I were you.”
“You’re absolutely right. I should make the most of the time I have here while I’m here.”
She studied the clumsily done needlework in her lap. “I don’t even know why I’m bothering with this. I can’t possibly finish it before we leave. I doubt—”
His voice was firm, yet gentle, and it drew her in the same manner that everything about him did. She found comfort from his nearness even as she knew that he’d be the death of her.
“Say my name again.”
She didn’t understand the struggle she saw in his features. Was he repulsed by her, by the thought of her name rolling off his tongue?
“Emma,” he finally murmured.
“You can’t imagine how many times I longed to hear you say my name rather than Eleanor’s.” She looked down because she didn’t want him to see the damnable tears that had surfaced yet again. “How much do you despise me for my deception?”
It seemed that minutes ticked by before he finally said, “Probably not nearly as much as you despise yourself.”
She peered over at him, surprised by his candor, yet relieved by his words. Although judging by how much she loathed herself, perhaps his dislike for her was greater than she wanted. “You are oh so very wise, James Swindler.”
“My life has brought all sorts through it. Some guilty. Some innocent. Some deserving of what fate brought their way. Some not. There was one lad I knew, long ago, cocky bastard. Greedy, too. Wanted everything he set his eyes on, he did. One day he saw a gent take a gold watch from his pocket. It was so shiny. The boy thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to have that, I would.’ So he pinched it. But he wasn’t very good, you see.
“The gent missed his watch straightaway, started yelling for a constable. The boy got scared. His father was standing nearby, so into his father’s pocket he dropped it. I suppose it was the surprised look on his father’s face that caused the constable to search him. And the gent, well, he was a lord. Didn’t appreciate having his watch pilfered. He saw to it that the man was hanged for his offense within the fortnight. Not once did the man ever declare his innocence. Not once did he ever point the blame at his son. He walked up the steps to the gallows as though he had no regrets. The regrets were left to his son.”
Her chest ached as though it had grown too small to contain her heart. “You were the son.”
She saw the answer reflected in his eyes. Twenty years to live with regret.
“My father told me we were playing a prank, we were swindling justice. When Feagan took me in, when he took anyone in, he made the boy change his name. Swindler seemed to suit a lad who’d managed to have his father hanged in his place.”
Although all these years had passed, her heart still went out to the boy who was now sitting before her as a man. “Oh, James, he wouldn’t have wanted you to live with the regrets. He knew what he was doing. Parents sacrifice for their children all the time.”
“It doesn’t make it any easier to live with, Emma.”
“That’s the reason you don’t carry a watch.”
“Can’t bring myself to purchase one—even though I can now well afford it.”
As though they’d only been talking about the weather, he returned to reading the journal. Because she could think of nothing significant to say to comfort him, she left him to it.
Because he’d taken an overly long sleep that afternoon, due to the unfortunate draught that Eleanor—strange how the name he’d once adored suddenly grated on him—had slipped him, Swindler was far from tired when the clock on the mantel chimed ten. Emma, on the other hand, was wilted. She told him to sleep in her bedchamber. She had plans to sleep with Eleanor. If sleep came at all.
Although aware that he appeared a buffoon without manners, he didn’t stand when Emma rose from her chair. He knew if he got to his feet, nothing on earth would stop him from approaching her, taking her in his arms and carrying her to bed. If he could last that long. His body was wound so tightly from being alone in her presence that it was quite possible he’d try to have her before they ever left the room. So he’d stayed where he was, given her a distracted good-night without ever looking up from the journal. It was bloody hell to sit so near her without touching her.
To make matters worse, he’d revealed his deepest, darkest secret as though it were a fairy tale. Whatever had possessed him to confess his sins regarding his father? Now she knew he, too, was responsible for a man’s death. He may as well have murdered his father, dropped the noose around his neck. The guilt had gnawed at him for twenty years now, leaving behind raw wounds that would never heal. No one knew about them, not even Frannie, but where Emma was concerned, he seemed unable to keep any secrets.
It was long past midnight when Swindler set the journal aside. He wanted to come to know the girl so he could better understand how whatever had happened might have affected her. Perhaps a bit of him was also searching for hints regarding Emma. He didn’t want to believe that she’d been completely duplicitous while in London. She had to have shared her true self with him, even if her name and her reasons hadn’t been honest. Damn it, he didn’t want to lose her, lose the woman he’d met in London, the one who intrigued him, made him laugh, made him glad to get up in the morning, gave him reason to anticipate the day. He thought the woman he’d known in London was more Emma than the woman who watched him here, the one with worry in her eyes and suspicions. He didn’t blame her for whatever doubts she might be harboring. He wasn’t even certain that he could explain all the reasons that had brought him here. Pride, because he’d allowed a murderer to escape his clutches. Honor, because his word could so easily be brought into question. But it was more than work. It was so much that he couldn’t explain.
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