Surrender to the Devil(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 3)(43) by Lorraine Heath
“It was very kind of you not to have him arrested,” Frannie said quietly.
To ensure that she was comfortable with him in the coach, and to ensure that the lad didn’t find a way to disappear from it—Sterling certainly wouldn’t put it past him to be artful in the ways of escape—he’d had the footman light the coach lantern. Besides, it gave him the opportunity to see her a little more clearly, even if the shadows worked against him.
“I decided your Scotland Yard friend would liberate him and give him to you anyway, so what was the point?”
She smiled at that, giving him reason to believe some truth resided in his words, and looked back at the boy, who appeared to be asleep.
“So who is this Sykes fellow?” Sterling asked quietly.
Rather than answering him, she murmured, “How old do you think he is?”
He was not a student of children, but based on the boy’s size—
“Somewhere in the neighborhood of five.”
“I put him at eight, possibly nine.” She sounded confident of her answer.
“He’s too small.”
“That’s the way Sykes likes them.” She lifted her gaze, and he saw not only profound sadness but fury as well. She was a woman of far-ranging passions and the ability to feel them simultaneously. Knowing of her past, was he a bastard for still wanting her in his bed? Knowing he could never marry her, was he a blackguard for wanting her in his life? “He scours the streets for the smallest of lads, and then works very hard to keep them small. He feeds them only enough so they survive. I suspect this one either came down one of your chimney flues or through a window that is seldom locked because it’s considered too small to allow anyone entry. It’s the very reason Sykes works so very hard to keep them so small.”
While she spoke, not once did she stop or slow the journey of her fingers through the lad’s hair.
“He terrorizes them so they do as they’re told. Under his care, they know not the gentle hand of kindness. If they fall ill, they get no comfort, no food, because they’re no longer earning their way.”
“And he refers to you as a devil?”
She smiled fully then, and he realized she was pleased that Sykes had gone to the trouble of calling her anything at all.
“The devil takes on all sorts of shapes,” she said.
“You’re jabbing sticks at him.”
“I give his lads a home when I can find them. And yes, I’ve put out word that I provide a safe haven.”
“He sounds like a rather unpleasant fellow. He can’t appreciate what you’re doing.”
Determination washing over her features, she angled her chin. “I know what it is to be fearful for your life. I will not cower from what I know is the right thing to do.”
“Even if it puts your very life at risk?”
“Don’t be so melodramatic. There are many children. Sykes can always find another.” She gazed down on the child still asleep on her lap. “This one now belongs to me.”
“You think to reform him?”
“He’s young enough that his soul is not yet lost. It’s the older ones, the ones who have been in prison who are more difficult to reach.”
“I’m familiar with the London streets. There are hundreds of children scouring about. You can’t save them all.”
She gave him a wistful smile. “No, but I can save this one, and for now, that’s enough.”
And what about you, Frannie? he wanted to ask. Who will save you?
She gave so much of herself to others. He wanted her to be like him, to put her own pleasures first.
He gazed out the window just as the coach rounded the curve and went through the gates of the orphanage. The gas lamps lit their way up the cobblestone path. When the coach came to a stop, the boy stirred.
“I’ll carry him,” Sterling said as the door opened and he stepped out. He reached back in and took the boy, who clung to him instinctively like a little monkey, his arms tightly wound around Sterling’s neck, his legs around his waist. Sterling stood there, astonished to realize that the child weighed almost nothing. He knew he was thin, but this…he couldn’t possibly be as old as Frannie thought.
“Sterling?” she prodded, indicating the path to the well-lit door.
“I do hope he doesn’t have fleas or lice,” he muttered as he fell into step beside her.
“I think you’re quite safe. I didn’t notice any.”
Withdrawing a key from her pocket, she unlocked and opened the door. Stepping inside, he was taken aback by the change in the place. It had a very homelike feel to it, with plants dotting the floor and paintings on the walls. Lamps burning low were sprinkled throughout. A large man with beefy fists rose up out of a chair as though ascending from the depths of hell.
“Good evening, Mr. Bates. How are things?”
“Quiet. Looks like you’re bringing in another one.”
“Yes, I am.” She turned to Sterling. “Mr. Bates keeps an eye on things at night.”
Like Cerberus guarding the gates of Hades, Sterling thought, although he suspected that here they were closer to heaven.
Frannie touched Sterling’s arm. “We’ll put him in a room down here. Tomorrow when we have a chance to clean him up and explain things, we’ll put him in a room with another boy.”
She guided him along a hallway to a room that contained a bed and a very soft-looking chair. She lit the lamp on the table beside the bed while Sterling carefully laid down the boy who’d sought to steal from him. The irony didn’t escape him.
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