Surrender to the Devil(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 3)(34) by Lorraine Heath
“I’m not fond of silence. In the jungles it’s a signal that danger is near.” He gave a nod and suddenly wine was being poured and food was being served.
“What’s a jungle truly like?” she asked.
“It’s hot. A lot of trees, plants, vines, monkeys tittering, insects chirping. Then suddenly everything goes quiet and you know a predator is near.”
“Were you terrified?”
“Invigorated, actually. It was challenging. Physically and mentally. We had guides, of course, but Lord Wexford—with whom I was traveling—and I would sometimes strike out on our own. Nearly got killed a time or two. Even that was thrilling.”
“You were thrilled by the possibility of being killed?”
“Sounds silly, I know, even reckless. My father wouldn’t have approved, but it was as though we were reduced to our most elemental struggle to survive. Victory was intoxicating.”
“Did you truly ride an elephant?”
“I did. And a camel, which was ghastly jarring. I thought I was going to lose all my teeth.”
She laughed. “I can’t even begin to imagine how different it all must have been from what we have here.”
“I have some sketches of my travels that I can share with you after dinner if you like.”
She was vaguely aware of a servant refilling her wineglass, her plate being removed, another brought in.
“You’re an artist, then,” she said, as she sampled the beef.
“Amateur, I assure you. Wexford is somewhat of a photographer, but he had a bit of difficulty getting creatures in the wild to remain still. He was able to get some rather nice landscapes. Now enough about me, Miss Darling.” He watched her over the rim of his wineglass as he took a long swallow. “I’m much more interested in hearing about you.”
“I fear after all your exciting travels, you’d find me boring.”
“I can honestly say that I’ve never been as intrigued by any woman as I am by you. The rapscallions who were with you today, Mr. Byerly in particular, had a bit of the devil in them. How did they come to be in your care?”
“If a child is arrested and Jim believes he can be turned about, he’ll bring him to me. The four today have seen the inside of a gaol. I want them to know life is more than the rookeries.”
He slowly stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. It was comforting, mesmerizing as she gazed into his serious blue eyes. “I must admit to having an interest in children who are being led into criminal activity. They’re the most vulnerable. If they’re caught, their punishments can be severe, even when their crimes are hardly worth bothering with.” She remembered what Jim had insinuated. “May I ask you, Your Grace, have you ever stolen an apple?”
His thumb continued its leisurely motions as he studied her while taking another sip of his wine. He nodded. “Yes. What of it?”
“Didn’t you think it was wrong?”
“I believe I was eight at the time and…it was a game.” His last words were delivered more quietly as though he’d come to a sudden realization. “Your criminal children believe they’re playing a game.”
“For the most part, yes. When a child is very young, what he is taught is the way he assumes it’s supposed to be. The purpose of a pocket is to hold items that are to be picked. The grocer’s stall is set up for amusement. Take an apple and see if the grocer can catch you—it’s a game he wants to play. If you have no one telling you that what you’re doing is wrong, how are you to know?”
“If it doesn’t belong to you—”
“The children have no possessions. They don’t understand ownership. When they’re caught, they’re sent to prison or even transported for stealing an apple or some trifling trinket the value of which is not even sixpence. Their punishments are often severe. The state of affairs where children are concerned is unconscionable. I was brought up in that world. Fortunately, my kidsman was not one who beat children. But he did teach us to steal and he used us to put coins in his pockets.” She shook her head. “It’s difficult when you love someone whom you know on some level is wicked.”
He skimmed his knuckles along her cheek. “I’ve effectively ruined what was supposed to be a pleasant evening.”
“No, it’s I who have ruined things. The children are my passion, and I get carried away when I speak of them.”
His face grew incredibly serious. “It is your very passion that intrigues me so much. May we take a turn about the garden before I return you home?”
He’d meant it, then. Opera and dinner only. She should have felt relieved. Instead, she feared he was luring her toward his bed by not flagrantly inviting her to it. But not tonight. Tonight she was safe. “May I see your drawings first?”
Sterling ordered the table cleared away, sent the violinist on his way, and retrieved his sketches and two snifters of brandy. He’d never before offered brandy to a woman, but Frannie Darling took it without objection. He imagined she drank from time to time. After all, she worked in an establishment where spirits were sold in abundance.
They sat on the small sofa. His seduction was not turning out exactly as he’d expected. He’d thought to have her in his arms by now, but he couldn’t deny that he couldn’t recall an evening he’d enjoyed more.
“A lion,” he said as she studied the first sketch.
“I can see that. He appears so…regal.”
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