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Authors: Kasey Michaels

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BOOK: Beware of Virtuous Women
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Eleanor put a hand to her chin, looked around as if there might be something to see. "Oh. Dear. They don't quite understand, do they?"

Jack stood up again. He couldn't seem to stay still for more than a moment. Probably because he wanted to
strangle
this strange, irritating woman. "Yes, I think you could safely say that. I think you could also safely say that you're in no danger of my housekeeper addressing you as
you poor dearie
ever again. Now, what do we do? Correction, what do
you
do, because this is your mess, Eleanor, and it needs cleaning up before Eccles and Phelps come to dinner tomorrow night."

Eleanor, who had been mentally reviewing Thomas Paine's
Rights of Man
in her head as she wondered what she'd done wrong, was suddenly all attention. "You've invited them
here?
But why?"

"I don't know, Eleanor. Perhaps I've become disenchanted with spending my nights attempting to find new ways to lose my money to a fool as thick as Phelps when others are watching and wanting into the game. You'd be amazed at how popular a bad card player with plenty of money to lose can be in London society. Besides, I told them to bring anyone else they wished to bring with them, as my cook is one of the best in May-fair and my new bride is a real beauty who hasn't recovered enough from our wedding trip to go into Society yet."

Eleanor could feel a flush of color reddening her cheeks. "You make that sound as if—well, never mind."

Jack found himself feeling embarrassed, as well, which was a very uncommon feeling for him, so that he immediately resented it. He began pacing the carpet, still longing to hit something and hoping to dissipate some of his angry energy. "Be that as it may, my new friends, and whoever they bring with them—please God let it be Chelfham—aren't the sort who expect to dine on
bubble and squeak."

"Yes, whatever that is," Eleanor said, also beginning to pace, only stopping when she realized what a ridiculous pair they must look, each of them marching up and down the carpet in different directions.

Jack paused in front of her on his trip up the carpet, and just looked at her.

As she looked at him.

And then, much to the surprise and amazement of both of them, they began to smile. Their smiles turned to laughter, and Eleanor actually reached out to lay a hand on his arm, to help support herself as her mirth threatened to overcome her.

"I really have to do something, don't I?" she asked at last, looking up at Jack...who was looking at her rather strangely. "Um.. .about the servants."

"You have a pretty laugh," Jack heard himself say, wondering where the words had come from. "And your eyes...they light up when you smile. I've stayed at Becket Hall several times. Why did I never notice you?"

Eleanor nervously wet her suddenly compressed lips with the tip of her tongue. "I'm sure I have no idea. I... I really should go downstairs and...and apologize to Mrs...um, that is, to Mrs..."

"Hendersen," Jack told her, his smile slow as he placed his hands on Eleanor's shoulders. "Fine name, Hendersen."

"Oh yes," Eleanor said, rushing into speech. "A fine name. Um...do you think you could let me go now?"

Jack considered this for the length of a second, if that. "No, I don't think so. I'm rather enjoying myself at the moment. Are you aware that there are small golden flecks in those huge brown eyes of yours?" He tipped his head to one side, leaned down lower. Closer. "Yes, I can see them. I can also see myself reflected in your eyes. Your most amazing eyes."

Eleanor would have blinked, but she seemed to have forgotten how to do that, and her body wasn't responding to any commands save the ratcheting up of her heartbeat and breathing. "Are you going to kiss me now, Jack?" she asked him because, obviously, all her usual good common sense had taken French leave so that all she was left with was a curiosity that she was powerless to deny.

Jack smiled. "Would you like that, Eleanor? Would you like me to kiss you?"

"As purely an experiment, you mean?"
Would she just shut up and say
yes?
What was
wrong
with her? The man wanted to kiss her, for goodness sakes.

"An experiment in precisely what, Eleanor?"

"I...well, I was thinking about what you said that first night we were standing here. Precisely here, as a matter of fact, although why you are always in my bedchamber rather than calling me down to the drawing room I've yet to fully fathom. You said that you couldn't have me flinching, drawing back, when you showed the most mundane of husbandly attentions. I've begun to realize that you may be right, especially as we'll have guests right here, at your own—our own—dinner table."

As she spoke, Jack watched that expressive little face. "You know what it is? You've never been kissed, have you, Eleanor Becket? One and twenty and living isolated at Becket Hall—you've never been kissed."

"I don't see where that has to enter into the—please let me go."

Jack lifted his hands, that had been only lightly resting on her shoulders. "I haven't actually been holding you, Eleanor."

"Oh."

"But I could be," he suggested, replacing his hands, this time curling his fingers around her upper arms. "It's not often a man has the opportunity to taste a woman's first kiss. I'd be honored. As an experiment."

"Now you're making fun of me." Eleanor was mortified. But she wasn't moving. She'd noticed that, that she wasn't moving away from him.

Jack was suddenly ashamed of himself. She was probably right. At least partially right. He slid his hands down her arms and took hold of her left hand, leading her over to the chairs flanking the fireplace. "We should talk."

Eleanor was more than happy to sit down, as her knees were shaking. She watched as Jack took up the facing chair on the other side of a low table, lounging in the chair with an ease she couldn't muster for herself as she sat perched on the edge of her own seat. She must look like a hopeful applicant wishing for employment; back ramrod straight, feet close together, hands folded in her lap. And, if not the applicant, then the prissy old maid about to ask to see any letters of recommendation.

But if she sat back in the large chair her feet would no longer touch the floor, and that would be just too embarrassing. Did people really think she
liked
sitting in the small, straight-backed chairs she always gravitated to, for pity's sake? Tall people, and everyone in her world seemed to be tall, didn't have to consider such things the way people who barely topped five feet in height did.

She remained silent as Jack sort of slouched sideways in his seat, his elbow on one arm of the chair, his chin in his hand.
Looking
at her.

She waited for him to speak, fill the silence.

And waited.

Inside Jack's head, he was counting:...
twelve... thirteen...fourteen...I'm not going to do it...fifteen...sixteen...come on, sweetheart, your turn...seventeen...

"You...um, you mentioned that you have visited Becket Hall a few times. After your first stay while you were recovering from...well, you know that part. But I doubt you paid much attention to the general running of the household. After all, men don't, do they? So perhaps I should explain more about how we... how we go on." She stopped, sighed as she realized what had just happened, how he had tricked her into filling the silence. "You really are the most annoying man."

"Yes, so I've heard. But you're both right and wrong, Eleanor. I have been to Becket Hall, and I'm not so dense or unobservant that I haven't noticed that it's a rather unique establishment. That you're a rather unique family."

"I find us to be quite natural, but that's probably because I really can't remember anything else."

"I thought you said you'd arrived at Becket Hall at the age of six. That's when Ainsley.. .found you?" Jack didn't know if there was another term for what Ainsley had done. Found? Adopted? Accumulated? A man with eight children, seven of them not of his own blood, could be said to have accumulated them, couldn't he?

Eleanor was silent for a moment. "I said that? Yes, I suppose I did, in passing. You have a very good memory, Jack."

"And more questions than I'd imagined," he answered truthfully. "Beginning, I suppose with one— how much are you willing to tell me?"

Eleanor looked at him from beneath her lashes. 'There really isn't much to tell. Papa and the rest, including the crews of both his ships, decided to move themselves to England after Cassandra's mother died. Papa had no heart to remain on the island home he'd made for everyone, you understand, and it seemed that most everyone felt as he did, that it was time to come home."

"Home? I've met many of the people who live in Becket Village and work at Becket Hall, Eleanor. Not half of them are English."

Eleanor lifted her chin slightly, proud of Ainsley Becket. "Anywhere my father is becomes home to those loyal to him."

"I stand corrected. If everyone else at Becket Hall is as loyal as you, Eleanor, I imagine they'd follow Ainsley into hell if that's where he was headed."

No, they'd all already been there, their hell had been where they'd died on that island, then come to England with the hope of living again,
Eleanor thought, lowering her gaze. "I believe I told you that I never saw the island. I remember none of it, but I've been told there was a storm at sea as they were making their way here to England, and the ship I was traveling on capsized. Fortunately, that ship was within sight of Papa's ships. Jacko himself saved me. Jacko, and then Chance."

Jack frowned. "And that's it? That's what happened? Your ship went down but you were saved? Only you?"

"Only me," Eleanor said, keeping her gaze steady on Jack as he believed her lies...most particularly the lie of timing. "Eleanor is the name Papa chose for me, as I was ill for a long time and, as I said, remember nothing, not even my given name. In truth, I don't even know how old I am. Odette decided I was six."

She was lying to him. Lying through those straight white teeth. Jack knew it. The gaps in her story were huge, as if an elephant had just been tossed into the middle of the room. But Jack knew if he pressed for details, made mention of that great, hulking elephant, if he pushed Eleanor, he'd lose any trust he may have gained.

Still, he felt he'd be expected to ask some questions. "Was it an English ship? Do you at least believe you're English?"

"Yes, I'm English."

Jack was learning more about Eleanor. For one thing, he was learning that she answered parts of questions, not the whole of them. She was English, that she acknowledged. She did not say that the ship she'd been sailing on had been an English ship.

"Did Ainsley ever try to find your family here?"

Eleanor looked at him, head-on as it were, when she answered. "There were attempts, yes. But time passed, and I was content. I had a new family, and since I didn't remember anything of my life before the shipwreck I didn't wish to leave that family. And...and I'm very content at Becket Hall."

Jack looked at her closely.
More lies. But what sort of lies? And for what reason?
"So content, in fact, that you volunteered to come to London."

"I haven't abandoned Becket Hall, Jack."

"True enough," he said, rubbing at his chin. "But don't tell me you're not...curious."

"Curious?" Eleanor folded her fingers together more tightly in her lap. "About what?"

Jack shrugged. "I don't know. About the rest of the world, what lies beyond Becket Hall and Romney Marsh? About your...your
other
family, be they dead or alive? I know I'd be curious."

Eleanor wanted to tell him, tell him everything. Not even her younger brothers and sisters knew the whole of it, but only pieces. Papa knew most of it, of course, but not all. Chance knew quite a bit, because he'd been there with Jacko, had snatched her up when...when it was over. But that was all. She'd never felt an overwhelming urge to confide in anyone else. For Jacko's sake, she supposed, since Papa cared for him.

Everyone at Becket Hall seemed satisfied that Eleanor was content.

But Jack seemed to know that no matter how happy she was at Becket Hall, there was always that not knowing. . .that question: who was she? Really? He couldn't, of course, know the rest. Nobody could. Nobody could even imagine the rest of it in their worst nightmares.

"No, Jack," she said now, getting to her feet, "I'm not curious. I'm anxious that we proceed as we are, and hopeful you're right, that these are the men and that we can put a stop to their ambitions. That is why I've come to London with you."

Jack unbent himself and stood up, as well, watching as she distanced herself from him. "Put a stop to their ambitions," he said to the back of her head, to that bewitching fall of dark hair. "What a lovely way of saying that we wish these three guilty and dead, probably by my hand, now that I really think about the thing."

Eleanor turned to look at him in surprise. "Kill them? You're not serious."

Jack chuckled low in his throat as he shook his head. "What do you suggest, Eleanor? That we politely ask them to stop trying to destroy us?"

"Don't be facetious," Eleanor said, almost without thinking the words, and then began to pace, her slight limp not detracting one whit from the enjoyment Jack felt, watching her.

He folded his arms and leaned against the side of the high, wingback chair he'd just vacated. "Ainsley knows, Eleanor. We all do. Ferret out whoever is causing us trouble and eliminate them. You were listening at the keyhole, weren't you?You heard Ainsley say the word?
Eliminate."

Eleanor stopped pacing. "Yes, but I thought that meant that..." She hesitated, her breath releasing in a quick, hard sigh. "Is there no other way? What if... what if you found ways to ruin them? Socially? Financially?"

"Make them so unappealing even the leaders of the Red Men Gang will turn their backs on them? Is that what you mean?"

Eleanor frowned. "No, that wouldn't work, would it? Once they're of no further use to the Red Men, the Red Men have no reason to let them live, and perhaps talk, say the wrong thing to the wrong person." Then she looked at Jack. "But then
you
wouldn't have eliminated them, would you?"

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