What an Earl Wants
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Gideon lowered his head, unable to look into Trixie’s tear-bright eyes. “I beg your pardon. I had no right to suspect…to question you. My only excuse, lame as it is, is that I’ve lately been under some duress.”
“I forgive you, pet. And I’ve indulged you this one time, but you must never again question me. You would rarely like the answers. I’ll surely burn in hell one day along with Reggie and so many others, but that is my concern, not yours.” The countess took his hand and lifted it to her lips. “You children are my weakness, you know, and always have been, from the day your father died and Maribel fled the country. Now, tell me more about these mysterious deaths. And why you took to wearing that damnable rose.”
JESSICA STOOD IN HER USUAL place, the one she’d long before decided provided the best vantage point from which to observe the gaming room. She smiled and nodded absently to the gentlemen from time to time, although never encouragingly, as it didn’t take much for some of them to believe she’d offered a more intimate acquaintance.
They were rather thin of company this evening, and unless more guests arrived in the next hour she might consider eliminating the second supper and close the doors to newcomers at two. It had been a long time since they’d made an early night of it, and she was looking forward to her bed.
Doreen had already left her post at the door to help with the first supper, but Jessica didn’t have to sit in at Richard’s chair at the faro table so that he could take the maid’s place. Not now that Seth was being taught by Doreen and Richard as to how to go on. His imposing size seemed to be enough to “go on” with so far. His open smile and boyish face, when put in contrast with his enormous frame, sent a clear signal: we’re delighted to see you, but if you don’t belong here or don’t behave, I will cheerfully hold you up by your heels while I carry you outside to bounce your head on the cobblestones.
Richard had somehow procured a decent suit of clothes for the boy, although the jacket did seem to strain at the shoulder seams, and Doreen had explained—undoubtedly in her usual excruciating detail—about the need to be careful as to who was admitted to the house. It would take him some time to become familiar with the usual faces, but he’d learn. Doreen, bless her wise Irish eye, could spot a constable at thirty paces.
Being hauled off to the guardhouse for operating an illegal gaming house was to be avoided at all costs! As far as her neighbors and most of the world was concerned, Jessica and her “Uncle Richard” held nightly soirees for those of an intellectual nature—the reading of self-composed bits of poetry and literary criticism, etc.
Richard had actually penned an “Ode to Dame Fortune;” he then had ordered the thing framed, personally hanging it in the ground-floor foyer. He thought it a fine joke.
After glancing at the mantel clock to see it lacked only fifteen minutes until eleven, Jessica surreptitiously rubbed at her right temple, hoping to ease the headache that had followed her back to Jermyn Street and still stubbornly refused to vacate the premises.
Her brother was a twit.A fool. An uncanny reflection of his brainless, flighty mother. Worried for his soul, Jessica had thought to rescue a nearly grown version of the sweet, shy, delightful Adam she remembered, only to come face-to-face with a simpering, posturing jackanapes rigged out like some Tatony pig, and displaying a similar intelligence.
Her only solace was the look of aggrieved pain on the earl’s face when Adam had presented himself in the drawing room. She had thought her sweet brother was in imminent peril of being corrupted by those scandalous Redgraves. Instead, if anyone was in any danger in that new association, she would have to lay odds Gideon Redgrave would be the first to run screaming into the night, begging rescue.
Jessica covered her smile with her hand. Poor Gideon. She’d handed him an easy escape, and he’d gotten his back up about her demand and refused. By rights, when he showed up here tonight—if he dared—she’d have to ask him if he symbolically carried his nose with him in a small velvet bag…having sliced it off to spite his face.
Still, she felt dreadful at having so quickly deserted the sinking ship that was Adam. It had been the shock of it; that had to be the reason. It wasn’t as if the boy was mean or evil. He had simply left the nursery and become a nincompoop. If there could be any pleasure in that knowledge, it had to be that their father must have been yanking his hair out by the roots each time he contemplated his fribble of a son.
But that’s what happens when you wed a nincompoop nearly thirty years your junior for her looks and her fertile womb. You had then set yourself up for fifty-fifty odds of her giving birth to a nincompoop. Really, you’d think more men would consider this.
Of course, that also meant he’d gone into the union with fifty-fifty odds she would have produced a likeness and disposition that mirrored his own.
Either way, Jessica realized now, too late, whatever way Adam was to go, he’d already gone there in the five important, formative years she had been separated from him, and there was no going back.
And there really wasn’t anything anyone could do to undo those five years. She’d be overweeningly ambitious to believe otherwise. Which would likewise mean there could be nothing the Earl of Saltwood could do to corrupt or correct Adam, she thought, and then mentally added to that thought: something else that might have occurred to you considerably sooner.
In short, if she’d been less of a sentimental goose and more hardheaded earlier, she would not have just passed through the most excruciatingly embarrassing twenty-four hours of her existence, or be standing here now in her same black hostess gown, attempting to look unconcerned that the clock had just begun chiming out the hour of eleven, and the exasperating man was nowhere to be seen.
And still she hadn’t told him what he needed to know about Adam. What he must know, why she had been so willing to sacrifice herself…and ended making a total fool of herself.
She would have thought, if nothing else, the earl was a man of his word. But perhaps not. Dangling a word like murder and coupling that word with your father should not be done lightly, not if the person doing the dangling didn’t mean to follow through with some explanation, for pity’s sake. Had the man no notion of what was correct?
Jessica rolled her eyes. Of course he did. He was the earl. She was the one operating an illegal gaming house. Then again, being an earl only proved he knew what was correct. It didn’t naturally follow that he’d do the correct thing.
Not that she cared. Except for the murder and the your father portions of the business. It wasn’t as if she ever wanted to see Gideon Redgrave again. Because he was an annoying man. Extremely annoying. Unsettling. So cocksure of himself. Why, it put her teeth on edge, just thinking about him.
But he had apologized about the rose. Why had he done that? Why had he worn it in the first place? Who was this man?
If only she could stop thinking about him… .
“Jess, he’s here.”
“Hmm?” she said as Richard’s roughly whispered words penetrated the introspective fog that was now her mind. She mentally shook herself back to the moment and turned her gaze to the landing in time to see Gideon once more looking perfectly put together, as if he’d just stepped out of a bandbox. He really was remarkable—a dazzling mix of precision and nonchalance, his dark handsomeness vying with his studied reserve.
She wondered if all women felt as she did when she saw him: how delightful it would be to see him discommoded, disheveled, vulnerable.
At her mercy.
Oh, dear, where had that thought come from?
Jessica lifted a hand to her high-necked bodice, perhaps to still her rapidly beating heart, and pasted a welcoming smile on her face as she crossed the room to where Gideon still stood, clearly playing Master of the Domain. Her domain.
“I warned you not to wear armor,” was his greeting, spoken quietly, yet reverberating inside her as if she’d suddenly grown harp strings inside her chest and he’d just plucked them.
The arrogance of the man! “And I did not, not this morning. Your ridiculous state of near undress to one side, I was nothing but presentable when I dared cross your threshold. Tonight, however, you are the guest, and what I wear is of my concern, not yours.”
His smile, so unexpected, nearly had her rocking back on her heels. “Perhaps we should give your brother the dressing of both of us. He’s convinced he’s in the very first stare of sartorial perfection.”
Jessica couldn’t help herself; she returned his smile. “I fear even your immense consequence could but crumble beneath the addition of a puce waistcoat, my lord. As for me, I’d rather go na—”
Gideon leaned in as if to hear her better. “Pardon me, I didn’t quite catch that? You’d rather what?”
“Could we possibly be serious, sir?” she asked, drawing herself up to her full height, which still made her feel small and insignificant in his presence. She wasn’t used to that. Her stature had always been a blessing, she’d thought. Why, she was taller than at least a quarter of the men in this room, including Richard.
“I rather thought I was being serious. You do know it’s inevitable, don’t you? You and I, that is. I won’t even point out it was you who began this intriguing dance of ours.”
“I apologize for that,” Jessica said quietly, shooting her eyes from side to side, praying no one could overhear them and this damning discussion. “Profoundly.”
“Ah, but not profusely. Profusely would be nice.”
“In that case, Gideon, I most profusely apologize for apparently goading you into the ridiculous display of ungentlemanly behavior I was so unfortunate as to witness this morning. You must feel so ashamed.”
He tilted his head to one side as he contemplated her, seemed to be measuring her in some way. “You’re not lacking in intelligence, are you? Or brass. There are few who would dare to speak to me so.”
“Perhaps if more did, you wouldn’t be so insufferably smug. I’m not afraid of you, Gideon. As to this absurd idea of anything between us being inevitable, I should point out that I have absolutely no interest in—Let go of me.”
“Don’t cause a scene,” he said, his grip on her arm looking to the casual observer to be one of easy familiarity, when in fact she swore his fingertips were crushing her bones as they walked straight cross the room to the doorway leading to her apartments. “We don’t want to rouse Richard’s suspicions. He’s got thirty years on me—it wouldn’t be a fair fight. And I’ll remind you, Seth is mine, not yours. Smile, Jessica. Let everyone know you’re just fine.”
“This is absurd. You…you’re kidnapping me in my own house,” Jessica whispered angrily, even as she saw the sense in not alarming Richard.
Richard paused in the act of drawing in the cards for a reshuffle. “You’re going upstairs?” he asked worriedly.
“We’ve some business to discuss, yes. I shan’t be long.”
“Very good,” Gideon complimented as she concentrated on inserting the key in the lock she’d earlier made sure was engaged this evening, which wasn’t a simple matter considering he had hold of her right arm and her left hand was shaking with nerves.
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