Surrender to the Devil(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 3)(38) by Lorraine Heath
“We’re not here to discuss Avendale,” Claybourne said. “We’re here because of the rumor regarding Frannie.”
Sterling glared at him, then gave his attention back to his sister with an impatient roll of the eyes. “This rumor—did it come from someone reliable?”
She pursed her lips. “Lady Charlotte.”
He should have known. Making her morning calls, indeed. In spite of the late hour, Sterling should have visited Millbank immediately after he’d delivered Frannie to her door.
“I do hope you don’t consider that rather unpleasant woman your friend.”
“Is it true then? Whisperings are going about that she’s your mistress, because you were there with her without benefit of a chaperone.”
Damnation. He didn’t like hearing that, although truth be told, he suspected the rumor had more to do with their disparate places in society than the lack of a chaperone. He would have to find a way to stifle the rumors. He wanted her, but not at a cost that embarrassed her or ruined her reputation. But he wasn’t about to admit that to Catherine or her husband.
“It’s my understanding that she’s near thirty, the arbitrary year, as far as I can tell, when a chaperone is no longer required.”
He could see that he had her there. It was a silly bit of etiquette, but there it was.
“But Sterling, you’re only twenty and eight.”
“Are you implying I’m the one in want of a chaperone?”
“Don’t be obtuse. You’re younger than she is.”
“I don’t see that my youth is of any significance.”
“Men don’t generally look to older women with matrimony in mind. Hence, further fodder for the gossipmongers.”
Another bit of silliness. He was well aware that men tended to take an interest in women younger than themselves, but it wasn’t the law. Hearing the clinking of glass, he jerked his head around to where his liquor cabinet stood. Claybourne was standing there pouring whiskey into two tumblers. “Do feel free to make yourself at home.”
Claybourne prowled over to the desk, very much reminding Sterling of a panther he’d once witnessed taking position right before it struck its prey. Holding one glass, Claybourne set the other in front of Sterling and sat on the edge of the desk. “Drink up. You may have need of it.”
Sterling might not have been hardened by the streets, but he’d had some harrowing experiences during his travels and come close to death a time or two. They tended to make a man develop a keen understanding of his limits and a profound respect for his strengths.
“Did you slip in some poison? I assure you the threat is quite unnecessary. I’ve already received warnings from Dodger and Swindler.”
Claybourne tapped his glass against Sterling’s—which he had yet to touch—and downed the whiskey. Sterling could see both his sister and his brother-in-law now. Catherine looked as though she was tempted to interfere. What she did instead was turn her back on him and walk beyond his field of vision, which worked well because Sterling wanted to concentrate on Claybourne. Marrying Catherine didn’t make him immediately trustworthy.
Claybourne leaned forward, his forearm pressed against his thigh. “Did you ever wonder why I killed the Earl of Claybourne’s second son—a man I didn’t realize at the time was my uncle and now refuse to openly acknowledge as such?”
There it was. Confirmation for what most of London believed to be true, but as the man had never actually endured a trial and been convicted, in some corners of London, doubts lingered. Did anyone want to welcome a murderer into the ranks of the aristocracy?
“I assume a dead man’s possessions are easier to pluck.”
“He brutally raped Frannie.”
The words couldn’t have been delivered with more force if they’d been accompanied by a swift kick to his gut. What little vision remained to Sterling threatened to blacken completely.
“She was twelve,” Claybourne went on, his voice flat, but the fury still simmering just beneath the surface. “Sold to a house of ill repute, one known for specializing in virgins. He was her first. As far as I know, her only. So yes, the four of us circle around her the way one might an injured butterfly, never touching it for fear of damaging it more, forever hoping that a day will come when it will again fly. If you harm her, in any manner, no matter how slight, you will answer to us. And while Graves might not have stopped by to issue a warning, don’t underestimate him. With that scalpel of his, he could slice out your heart and you’d never feel it.”
Sterling repeated to Claybourne what he’d told Dodger and Swindler. “It’s never been my intent to hurt her.”
Claybourne nodded. “Sometimes we harm without intending to. So be forewarned. She is more precious to us than the Crown Jewels are to the queen.”
Claybourne got up and began striding from the room.
“Claybourne!” Sterling called out, rising to his feet as Claybourne stopped in his tracks and faced him. “In my world travels, I saw a good many varieties of butterflies. They’re incredibly delicate creatures, but they shouldn’t be underestimated. Observing them as I did, I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes if you surround a butterfly too closely, it couldn’t fly if it wanted to.”
Claybourne studied him for a moment as though searching for a compelling argument. Eventually he gave a brusque nod and turned his attention to the side, to await his wife, Sterling realized, who had approached Sterling. The room was large enough and Claybourne had walked far enough away that he’d be unable to hear whatever the brother and sister said to each other.
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