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Authors: Kasey Michaels

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BOOK: Beware of Virtuous Women
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Ah, now he saw her problem. She didn't seem to want blood on his hands. Or hers, for that matter. "I see. You want me to destroy them—socially or financially—but let the Red Men actually eliminate them."

"Yes.
No."
Eleanor sat down on the low chair in front of her dressing table. "Perhaps I'm not as prepared for this... mission, as I thought I was. Does Sir Gilbert have a wife, children? You said the earl and Mr. Phelps are both married. God, Jack. I'm to be with these women,
cultivate
them, knowing we could be planning the deaths of their husbands?"

"I don't know about Gilly. Married? I don't think so. Phelps? Just his wife, I believe." Jack stopped, realized what was happening. "Damn it, woman, I can't be concerned about any of that, and neither can you. A soldier going into battle goes in already a dead man if his mind is full of worries about the enemy's wives and children."

"I know," Eleanor said as she nervously fussed with the handle of a hand mirror on the dressing table. "And I know our first concern is the families we help, and everyone at Becket Hall. I was...I was reacting, not thinking clearly."

And if I kill any of these three men, you'll carry the guilt for the rest of your life, won't you, little fawn,
Jack thought, looking at her as she bent her head, avoiding his gaze.

He reached down, putting his hand over hers for a moment, stilling her fingers as they pushed at the mirror handle, then went down on one knee beside her, inches from her face. "Eleanor. I'll try, all right? Maybe there's a way to stop them without eliminating them completely, or at least managing things so that the Red Men Gang does our job for us. But I can't promise anything. You understand that, don't you?"

He looked so earnest. He was so close to her.

"I should go home, shouldn't I? I thought I could help, but now I'm being missish, and shortsighted, and definitely not rational. This isn't a game where we can best them, defeat them, then everyone shakes hands and goes on their way, is it? This is life and death. I
know
that. I've always known that. I...I just never wanted to really
believe
that."

Jack watched, fascinated, as tears welled in Eleanor's velvety brown eyes, even as she kept her chin high, refusing to give way to her emotions. "Please stay, Eleanor."

"But I've been nothing but trouble to you. I've made a shambles of your household, and now I'm interfering with your plans rather than helping you with them." She smiled wanly. "You know, Jack, I once prided myself on how well controlled I am, how in charge I am of my emotions and most any situation. I've been deluding myself."

"No," Jack said, amazed that he meant every word he was about to say. "Ainsley wouldn't have allowed you to come here if he didn't trust you completely, trust your judgment. You're a civilizing influence, Eleanor, whether you know it or not. We men tend to think in terms that are rather absolute. Kill or be killed, for one. There may be another way."

Eleanor lifted a hand and cupped his cheek, reacting again, not thinking. "No. There is no other way, and we both know it. Either these men lead us to the head of the Red Men Gang or their own leaders will destroy them for allowing us to even get close. Either way, assuming we succeed, these three men are already as good as dead. When I meet them, I will be speaking to dead men and widows." She dropped her hand to her lap once more. "Rationally, I understand that."

Jack put his hand on her cheek, returning intimate gesture for intimate gesture. A sort of bonding, merely physical, that would mean an agreement to so much more than that. "And you'll be able to live with those consequences?"

"We all live with the consequences of our decisions. Papa has schooled us all to know that. Yes, I can live with the consequences."

Eleanor slowly blinked, and one huge tear escaped, to run down her cheek. Jack wiped at it, gently rubbing his thumb over her soft skin.

He'd never understood war as it had been described to him by fellow soldiers trying to fill the night before a battle with thoughts of home, of wives and sweethearts. How they swore they were there, to kill or be killed, in order to protect those they'd left behind. He didn't understand any of that now. You killed to protect yourself. Yourself and the person next to you, who hopefully felt the same way.

Now he was all but promising to
not
kill in order to protect this woman? This made no sense to him. Violence he understood. Swift, decisive action. And yes, you lived with the consequences. Gentleness, however, and mercy, had never been any part of his equations.

"I'll do what I can, Eleanor. We'll put our heads together, think of something. We'll at least try."

"Thank you." Eleanor pressed her head against his hand, caught between gratitude that he understood and some shame at her female reaction to a male game she'd thought she was equipped to play. Her sister Morgan could have played the game without a thought, without a blink, without a moment of remorse as she did what she believed to be right. But she was not Morgan, even if in her dreams she'd occasionally believed she could be.

Jack leaned in toward Eleanor, and surprised himself by putting his lips to her cheek. "No, Eleanor. Thank you," he whispered, then got to his feet and left the room, wondering how one goes about becoming a better man....

CHAPTER FIVE

 

"Handle
them? Are you daft, man?"

Jack handed Cluny a half-filled wineglass, then sat down behind the desk in his study. He'd avoided his friend all day, but at last he'd told him about the previous night's promise to Eleanor. "I didn't know what else to say, frankly. She was looking down at her hands, folded in her lap, as if they already had blood on them."

"Ah, now I understand. 'Out, damn spot! Out, I say!'"

"You're not amusing, Cluny," Jack told him, then drank deeply from his own glass.

"Just remember, boyo, that Shakespeare bloke you're so fond of was penning himself a bloomin' tragedy with that
Macbeth
of his. This is
war,
boyo. You remember war, don't you? We skewer them before they can skewer us?"

"I think she's resigned to that, Cluny. She simply doesn't want
me
to be the one doing the killing."

Cluny spread his arms, some of his wine splashing over the rim and onto his fat fingers, which he then licked, for the Irishman made it a point to never waste a drop of spirits. "What's the difference? Either we go through them to get to the Red Men—that makes them dead, boyo, when we go through them—or we get the names we want and then let them go. In which case, unless we act quickly enough, the Red Men do the killing for us. Blood on our hands either way, boyo, because it's not as if we can just turn them over to be tried and hanged, not without exposing ourselves. Has your little lady figured that out yet? Those men were dead the moment you first looked at them. They just don't know it yet."

"She's not my little lady."

"I say all of what I'm saying and that's your only answer? She's not your little lady? Better your little lady than your little tyrant, boyo. She looks like butter won't melt in her mouth, but she certainly knows how to get her way. What did she do, boyo, weep all over your shoulder?"

Jack shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "No, Cluny, she didn't. I don't think she's seen life before, ridiculous as that sounds."

"Oh? So what's she been doing at this Becket Hall you wax so poetic about all the time? They had her wrapped up in cotton wool?"

"In a way, yes," Jack said, considering the thing. "Everyone else at Becket Hall is...very alive, almost boisterous. And, looking back on it all, I think they all go out of their way to protect Eleanor, try not to ever upset her. I don't know. Maybe it has something to do with the limp."

"If what she did to this household is any indication, boyo, turning everything upside down, I'd think they all need protection from
her.
There's a will there, a strong will. And some very strange ideas."

"I know. I think she reads. Quite a lot. Something filled her full of ideals and high-flown notions, that's for sure. I mean, she's living with a gaggle of smugglers, yet she's the lady, always the lady." He drained his glass. "A lady who longs to be adventurous."

"Until the itch turned to the scratch, you mean," Cluny pointed out, as only Cluny could. "Send her packing, boyo. It's the only answer."

"I can't do that. She even suggested I send her home, but I can't."

"Won't,
you mean. It's not romance you're thinking about here, is it, boyo?"

Jack was genuinely shocked by the question. "Romance?
No.
God, man, I've no time for romance. Besides, this is Ainsley Becket's little chick. I like my guts where they are—inside, so I don't have to look at them while Ainsley's man Jacko ties them around my neck in a bow. One thing I know for sure, Cluny, Jacko is not the boasting sort. He says something, he means what he says, and then he does it."

Cluny shrugged. "Don't say I didn't try bringing you back around to sanity, boyo. So. You have a plan?"

Jack shook his head. "Not yet, although I'm definitely leaning toward putting a pistol to Chelfham's head and just demanding names from him. Do you think that would work?"

"It could. Simple. Direct. Of course, if he won't tell you then you'd have to shoot him, just to show him you meant your threat, and where would that put us? You've already told me you don't think the other two are worth more than warm spit when it comes to knowing much."

Jack was listening to his friend with only half an ear, as something else had occurred to him. "Chelfham," he said quietly. "Eleanor seems to worry about all three men, but there's something...something
more
in those eyes of hers when she makes mention of the earl. Something in her voice. Damn, Cluny, do you think Becket's been holding something back from me?"

Cluny sat forward, interested. "Such as?"

"I'm not sure. Something on the order of perhaps having already heard Chelfham's name. He did agree rather quickly to my plan, now that I think about it. Even about sending Eleanor here with me when she offered to come—when she quietly demanded she come, now that I consider the exchange between them. Ains-ley Becket is a very smart man who plays his cards damn close to his chest. Cluny? Do you think he already suspected Chelfham?"

"I've never met the man, Jack, remember? What do you think?"

Jack laughed shortly, ruefully. "I'll be damned if I know
what
I think anymore. He could be using me. I'd even accept that. But why toss his daughter into the mix? That's what makes no sense. Cluny, I need you at my back."

"Never been anywheres else these past seven years, boyo."

"No, Cluny, I mean literally. I want to know if I'm being followed."

"Becket?"

"Becket, yes. Remember, I work for him, but that doesn't mean he's
accumulated
me as he did his so-called children. I don't know who trusts whom here, or if anyone trusts anyone else. Not even Eleanor. I think she's sincere, but how can I be sure?"

Cluny was quiet for some moments, then said: "Bed her."

"What?"

"Now, now, boyo, don't be climbing over that desk to clamp your hands around my neck. Think on it, that's all I'm saying. Pillow secrets, that's what I'm talking about. Women have been doing it since the dawn of time, since Adam and Eve, I suppose. Only you make sure it's
her
does the talking, whispering the secrets. Little thing like that, living in books, living in the back of beyond? And a cripple, too, into the bargain? Couldn't ask for easier pickings. She'll fall into your arms like a ripe plum. Sweep her off her feet, boyo, give her the fairy tale she's been dreaming about, and you'll soon know everything she knows, maybe even more than she thinks she knows."

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