Surrender to the Devil(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 3)(62) by Lorraine Heath
He touched her cheek. “He brought you back. He can steal anything he wants.”
Her laughter was soft and for a moment it erased her worries, but he could see them return with force. Once his company was abed, Sterling would seek to entice out of her what was truly troubling her. It was more than the boy. Of that he was certain.
He awoke the youngest of his footmen and had a bath prepared in the kitchen for the lad. While Frannie was scrubbing the little devil clean, Sterling went to his boot-boy’s room and grabbed a few items. The clothes would be a trifle large but should suffice.
When he returned downstairs to the kitchen, the boy was out of the tub and Frannie was toweling him off.
“Caw, blimey! Yer scraping off me skin!”
“Stop your complaining,” Sterling demanded, before Frannie could reply. “I’ll have you know I’ve paid good money to have beautiful ladies towel me off.”
She jerked her head around to look at him, and a charming blush crept up her cheeks.
He grinned at her. “Some foreign countries have lovely customs.” He held up the clothes. “He can have these.” With the toe of his shoe, he nudged the rags on the floor. “These we should probably burn.”
“Probably.” Reaching for the clothes, she dropped the towel and it pooled on the floor.
Sterling didn’t mean to stare, but dear God…“He really is nothing more than bones.”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
Sterling could see some marks on the boy’s side, on his shoulder. He turned him around—
“ ’ere now!” the boy bellowed.
Ignoring him, Sterling studied the crisscross of faint scars on his back. “Did someone whip him?”
Turning him around, Frannie had him raise his arms and began working the nightshirt over his head. “The authorities,” she said quietly. “He was apparently arrested for stealing sixpence. Rather than sending him to prison, he got the lash.”
“But…but he’s a child.”
“Some gent fancied his sixpence more.”
“Wot ye bothered fer?” The boy crossed his bony arms over his skinny chest. “I didn’t cry.”
“How old are you?”
“Don’t gotta tell ye nuffin’, bloody nob.”
“He’s eight,” Frannie said. “Do we have a bed for him?”
Sterling nodded. “Yes.”
The room he chose was just down the hall from his. He thought Frannie might want to pop in and check on the boy from time to time. He stationed the footman inside the room with the order not to let the boy go anywhere.
He looked even smaller tucked into that massive bed with Frannie combing her fingers through his dark hair.
“You need to stay here, Peter,” Frannie said quietly. “It’s what your mother wants. Tomorrow we’ll have a nice breakfast and get you some proper clothes. Everything is going to be all right. I don’t want you to be afraid.”
“I ain’t afraid of nuffin’.”
“Don’t run away again, all right?”
He shrugged, nodded, rolled over, all at the same time.
Frannie rose and smiled softly at Sterling.
“That wasn’t exactly a promise now, was it,” he said.
Shaking her head, she headed for the door. Sterling stopped by the footman and said in a low voice, “Expect trouble.”
“Fetch me if there is any.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Sterling went into his bedchamber, grateful to see that Frannie was there, sitting on the sofa in front of the fireplace where a low fire burned on the hearth. Her bare feet were drawn up on the cushion and she was rubbing her arms as though she were chilled. He went to a table where he kept his nightly brandy, poured two generous snifters, and joined her.
She took the snifter from him and drank deeply before balancing it on her thigh and holding it with both hands. Her gaze was far, far away.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” he stated quietly.
“You don’t think that child deserves worrying over?”
He rubbed his thumb between her furrowed brows. “Something else is upsetting you. Tell me what it is.”
She shook her head, tears welling in her eyes.
“There is nothing you can tell me that will change…the affection I hold for you.”
“Do you have affection for me, Sterling?”
He feared he had a good deal more than that, but that admission would lead them toward a road they couldn’t travel and would make things so much more difficult in time. “I care for you very much, Frannie. I don’t like to see you so unhappy. The boy is clean, fed, and in bed. He’s back in your care. That should be a reason for joy. But, Frannie, my darling, you look as though your heart is breaking.”
She nodded, squeezed her eyes shut, and took another gulp of the brandy. Shifting around, she faced him. “Nancy…she was my friend. She wasn’t one of Feagan’s children. But she was there, on the streets, one of us. She was two years older. When she was twelve, she moved in with Sykes. Girls do that on the street. You survive the best way you can. But we were friends. Friends.”
She seemed to be stuck on that word.
“You were friends,” he repeated. “Did you play together?”
She laughed and shook her head. “The game we played was called the Lucifer Drop. I had two boxes of matches and I’d walk along offering them to people. Of course everyone ignored me, because I was a beggar. I’d very skillfully knock into someone and drop the matches into the mud. I’d start crying and Nancy would start screaming that our mum was going to kill me. The fellow I bumped into would pay us handsomely to quiet our attention-drawing dramatics. We made out quite well.”
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