Authors: Kasey Michaels
During his weeks of recuperation at Becket Hall, Jack had done more than strip Jacko of five thousand pounds as they'd passed time playing at cards. He also had gained Ainsley's thanks for the rescue of one of his oldest friends, Ainsley's trust and, with that trust, a future.
And never once in that month or in the two years since had he said more than "Good morning, Miss Becket," or "Good evening, Miss Becket," to Eleanor.
She cocked her head toward the doorway, listening as Jack explained more of his plan. "I'm going to get even closer to Phelps, who will bring me closer to the others, close enough that I can find ways to bring them down, each one of them. But I may need that initial entree into a wider society, as well. I discussed this with your son-in-law as we crossed the Channel tonight, and he's agreed to give me a letter of introduction to his friend Lady Beresford. I'm now a gentleman who has spent much of his time these past years on his plantations in the West Indies, happily visiting my homeland."
"That should be enough to gain you at least a few invitations. Chance could help you there, too, except that he and Julia plan to remain at his estate with the children until the end of summer, now that he's left the War Office," Ainsley said. "All right. What else? You have the look of a man who isn't quite finished saying what he needs to say."
"No," Jack said, "that's about it. The rest is just details I'll need to handle on my own."
"I'm thinking I may need a wife."
Eleanor clapped her hands over her mouth, hoping no one had heard her short, startled gasp. Then, once back under control, she stepped closer, anxious to hear what else Jack might say.
"Wives go a long way in making a man appear respectable. It's not enough that I play the rich, amiable fool. I believe I need a wife, as well. Most especially a wife who listens with both ears to other men's wives. Hiring an actress to play the part is chancy, but also worth the risk, I believe. Phelps's wife, for one, has a tongue that runs on wheels. Ask her the right questions, and I may get answers that will help me."
"I can see you believe this Harris Phelps to be the weakest link," Ainsley said. "Who are the other two?"
"Sir Gilbert Eccles is one. But the fellow who most interests me is the strongest of the lot. If he's not the head of the Red Men, then he is very close. Rawley Maddox, Earl of Chelfham."
Before Eleanor could clap her hands to her mouth again, someone did it for her, and she was pulled back against the tall, rangy body of Odette, the one woman in the Becket household who knew every secret, the voodoo priestess who had come to England with the Beckets so many years ago.
"Ears that listen at the wrong doors hear things they should not hear," Odette whispered to Eleanor. "Come away, child."
"But Odette—you heard?
The Earl of Chelfham."
"I heard. You want nothing to do with this man. You decided. We all decided."
"I know," Eleanor whispered fiercely as she looked toward the half-open door. "But this is...this is like
And I only want to see. Is it so wrong to want to see?"
"You want the man,
Odette told her, stroking Eleanor's hair with one long-fingered hand. "He's the temptation you don't want to resist."
"You mean Jack?" Eleanor sighed, realizing protest was useless. "There's no future in lying to you, is there, Odette?
The woman's face lost its smile. "Not everything, little one. Never enough. But I do know your papa won't approve."
Eleanor wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "I know. But this is my decision to make, Odette, my chance. If I don't take my chance, I'll have the rest of my life to regret it. Years and years to sit by myself with my embroidery, my paints, my music. Sit and watch everyone else live their lives, while mine just slowly, quietly runs out, like sand slipping through an hourglass. Don't you see? I have to do this."
"Born a maiden, not prepared to die a maiden. Yes, I see."
Eleanor whispered fiercely, then sighed. "Yes, yes, that, too. And why not? I've tried being a paragon, and it's lonely, Odette. It's a lonely life. I want to hold more than other people's children. That's a dream, only a dream. But the earl, Odette? He's real. How can I hear what I just heard, and walk away?"
Odette looked at her for a long time, and Eleanor returned that gaze as steadily as she could, until the older woman sighed, shook her head. "I'll be ordering more candles, I suppose. A bonfire of candles burning for you Beckets."
Eleanor impulsively hugged the woman, neither of them comfortable with such physical displays of affection. Yet Odette put her arms around Eleanor's shoulders and held her tightly for a moment before pushing her away, using the pad of her thumb to trace the sign of the cross on Eleanor's forehead. When it came to asking for divine help, Odette did not limit herself to calling only on the good
"Thank you, Odette," Eleanor said, then squared her slim shoulders and walked into her papa's study to confront the man who had been coming to Becket Hall for over two years, and had never noticed her, never noticed the quiet one in the corner.
He'd notice her now...
"A shame Morgan is married," Jacko was saying. "She'd be perfect, you know. Right, Cap'n? Fire and spirit, that's Morgan. Give her a set of balls and—Eleanor." Jacko looked to Ainsley, who had already gotten to his feet.
"Eleanor? I hadn't expected you to be up and about this late at night. Is there something you wanted before you retire?" And that, she knew, was Ainsley's way of reprimanding her. Two quiet, polite questions, both meant to send her scurrying off, because she most certainly wasn't welcome here, at this moment.
She could hardly hear for the sound of her blood rushing in her ears, and she seemed only able to see Jack Eastwood, who had slowly unbent his length from one of the chairs and now stood towering over her.
"I.. .I'll do it," Eleanor said, still looking up at Jack, at the lean, handsome face she saw nearly every night in her dreams. The thick, sandy hair he wore just a little too long, with sideburns that reached to the bottom of his ears. The slashes around his wide mouth, that fuller lower lip. And his eyes. So green, shaded by low brows; so intense, yet so capable of looking at her and never seeing her.
He was a very.. .elemental man, a singular force of nature. Just his physical appearance was so in contrast to herself. Fire to her carefully cultivated ice.
Eleanor felt sure the man was a mass of barely leashed power behind a careful facade, that he had hidden some of himself from Ainsley, which was no mean feat. There was emotion there. He simply kept his feelings deep inside, and Eleanor didn't know if she most longed to know why he hid those emotions, or if she only wanted him to look at her, see her, feel safe to relax his careful shields with her.
So that he might melt her ice and make her
"Eleanor..." Ainsley said, stepping out from behind the desk. "I'll assume you heard us, but—"
"I said, I'll do it," Eleanor interrupted, still looking at Jack Eastwood, still half lost in her daydream—she, who rarely dreamed, and only about Jack. "I'll pretend to be your wife, Mr. Eastwood. Go to London. Be your ears and eyes around the women. You can't buy loyalty, no matter how high the price. I'm the logical choice, the only logical, safe choice."
Jack quickly looked to Ainsley as if for help, then back to Eleanor, shaking his head. "I don't think your father approves, Miss Becket."
Was the woman out of her mind? Look at her. A puff of wind would blow her away. All right, so there was a hint of determination about that slightly square jaw she held so high on the long, slender stalk of her neck. God, even that mass of dark hair seemed too heavy for her finely boned head. Yet she had the look of a lady, he'd give her that. Refined. Genteel. What was the term? Oh yes, a
A sculptor's masterpiece, actually, if he was in a mood to be poetical, which he damn well was not.
The large-eyed, delicately constructed Eleanor Becket reminded Jack mostly of a fawn in the woods. Huge brown eyes, vulnerable eyes. But that limp? London society could be cruel, and they'd smell the wounded fawn and destroy her in an instant.
Would she stop staring at him! Stop making him feel so large, so clumsy, so very much the bumpkin. The skin tightened around his eyes, drew his brows down, and he stared at her, tried to stare through her. Scare her off, damn her. He had enough on his plate, he didn't need any more complications. Certainly not one in skirts.
At last she looked away, to speak to her father. "Papa? You do see the rightness of this, don't you? No one knows me, and when the need is past, I will come back here to live in quiet retirement, as we've always planned. Mr. Eastwood, should he choose to stay in society, can certainly find some explanation for my disappearance. A divorce? Death?"
Eleanor abruptly shut her mouth, knowing she had gone too far. Keep in the moment, that's what she must do, not muddy up the waters with thoughts of consequences.
"We'll speak later," Ainsley said, taking hold of her shoulders, to turn her toward the door.
"No, Papa," Eleanor said in her quiet way, holding her ground. "We'll not speak at all, not about this decision, which is mine. Mr. Eastwood? When do you wish me to be ready to leave?"
Jacko yanked at his waistband with both hands, pulling the material up and over his generous belly. "Always said there was pure Toledo steel there, Cap'n, and you know it, too. She knows what's for. Probably the smartest of the bunch, for all she's a female. I say let her go."
Jack narrowed his eyes once more as he looked to Ainsley, to the grinning Jacko and, lastly, back to Miss Eleanor Becket. Smartest of the bunch? Toledo steel? He doubted that. And yet her gaze was steady on him, and he recognized determination when he saw it. "Ainsley? We could leave tomorrow afternoon. Spend a night on the road while I send someone ahead to alert my staff in Portland Square. We'd be gone a fortnight at the most."
It took everything she had, but Eleanor did not reach out to Ainsley when he retreated behind his desk, sat down once more, looking very weary, and older than he had only a few minutes earlier. 'Tomorrow will be fine, Jack."
Jack was ready to say something else, something on the order of a promise to take very good care of the man's daughter. But Jacko slung a beefy arm across his shoulders and gave him a mighty squeeze against his hard body, and the breath was all but knocked from him.
Jacko's voice boomed in his ear. "We trust you, see? That's the only reason you're getting within ten feet of our Eleanor here. We're all friends here, too, aren't we? Remember that, my fine young gentleman. You saved that fool Billy, and I'm grateful. So don't harm so much as a single hair on our Eleanor's head, because I don't want to have to tie your guts in a bow around your neck."
"No, Jacko, you don't, and neither do I want you to have to try," Jack said when the big man released him, feeling as if he'd just been mauled by a large bear. He shook back his shoulders, bowed to Eleanor. "Miss Becket, with your kind permission?"
She inclined her head slightly, then watched as Jack brushed past her and left the study before turning to her adoptive father. Waiting.
"Rawley Maddox, lifted up to be the Earl of Chelf-ham," Ainsley said at last, the long, slender fingers of his right hand closing tightly around the glass paperweight. "Of all the names the man might have said..."
"Should we tell him, Cap'n? In case he has to watch out for her?"
"No," Eleanor said quickly. "Tell him, and he won't let me go. I
Ainsley nodded his agreement, then added, "We don't know if your memories are correct, Eleanor. We can suspect, but we don't
"No, Papa, but we've always wondered who I am... who I
I know what we decided, what we both felt best, that the past is in the past and won't change, not for any of us. But I can't look away from this chance. I just can't. I've lived too long with the questions, we both have. Why that ship? Why that one particular ship?"
"And you'll take one look at the bugger and have all our answers? Look at him, and nothing more? Not then want to go from looking, to talking?" Jacko shook his head. "Maybe we've all been stuck here too long, if any of us believes that...."