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Between the Devil and Desire
The devil had come to call. Sitting beside him in her library, Olivia Stanford, the Duchess of Lovingdon, didn't know whether to be appalled or fascinated. He was an interesting creature, and while she'd heard many of the sordid tales regarding him, she'd never actually set eyes on him before that night.
His black, unruly hair, curling teasingly across his broad shoulders, spoke of a desire to rebel against societal constraints. The harsh lines of his face had been carved by a life of decadence, misbehavior, and excess. Yet, he was beautiful in a rugged sort of way, like the manner in which a jagged coastline at dawn could steal one's breath with its magnificence.
She lowered her gaze from a profile that had held her enthralled from the moment she'd walked into her library and met the deliciously wicked Jack Dodger.
His gambling den provided entertainment for many men of the aristocracy. Sisters, wives, mothers heard slurred references to the debauchery that occurred within Jack Dodger's domain when their brothers, husbands, sons returned home in the early hours, three sheets in the wind. The women, of course, discreetly exchanged stories over tea, and so Dodger's reputation, as well as that of his establishment, had grown among proper ladies who weren't supposed to know about such improper things. Women detested his existence and the opportunity he provided for the men in their lives to stray from all that was good and respectable, yet none could deny their ceaseless fascination with a man so devoted to sin.
Sitting near him, Olivia became increasingly aware of the rawsexuality emanating from him. She imagined women followed him into his bedchamber without a single word being uttered. She could smell the tobacco and whiskey fragrance that permeated him and, to her everlasting shame, found herself relishing the darkly masculine scent. Everything about him spoke of forbidden indulgences.
He was truly the work of the devil.
He even carried the devil's mark. The brand was clearly visible on the inside of his right thumb, because he didn't possess the good manners to wear gloves and his long fingers were splayed across the arm of the chair. While marking criminals was no longer a practice, Olivia knew what the T burned into his flesh signified: he'd spent time in prison for thievery. She had little tolerance for those who took what did not rightfully belong to them.
In spite of his questionable past and occupation, she could not fault the quality of his attire. It had obviously been sewn by the finest tailor in London, but the red brocade waistcoat beneath his black jacket was entirely inappropriate for this somber occasion: the reading of her late husband's will.
Why Lovingdon had insisted the notorious Jack Dodger be in attendance was beyond the pale. How did he even know the blackguard? As far as she knew he'd never visited Dodger's Drawing Room. However, her brother, the late Duke of Avendale, had frequented it quite often, providing her with the enviable opportunity to add greatly to the repertoire of scandalous tales circulated amongst the ladies.
But Lovingdon had been as pious as they came. The man hadn't even kept liquor in the house, and to her knowledge, wine had never touched his lips. She knew the same could not be said of Jack Dodger's. He had the fullest set of lips she'd ever seen on a man, a dark, dark red, as though they'd been soaked in fine wine, and she had little doubt they were accustomed to tasting all pleasures. His mouth was designed to lure the most virtuous of women toward forbidden passion. Why else would she find herself inappropriately wondering what it might be like to have him kiss her? She'd long ago stopped pondering the delight of kisses...perhaps because Lovingdon had been so dead-set against them. Yet there she was, imagining those lips playing over hers, enticing her in ways that Lovingdon never had.
Again she wondered why he had wanted Jack Dodger at the reading of his will.
Yet Mr. Beckwith, the duke's solicitor, positioning his papers at the desk across from her, had insisted it was not only so, but that Olivia was to be in attendance as well. So there she was, as always, honoring her responsibilities, no matter how distasteful they might be. From the moment she was born, a devotion to duty had governed her life. It was the reason that, at nineteen, she'd married a man more than twenty-five years her senior...because her father had arranged the marriage, and a respectful daughter did not go against her father's wishes, regardless of her own passionate yearnings.
Lovingdon had been honest from the beginning. Getting up in years, he was in dire need of an heir, and while marriage to him had not been all she'd hoped for, it was not as bad as it might have been. She'd earned his respect and had supreme reign over his household. And he'd given her a precious son, even if he'd been unable to give her his heart.
She was quite confident that Henry, as the legitimate heir, would inherit everything of importance. She had hopes the will would stipulate that the London residence was to become the dower house, because she loved it so. But it was rather grand, and usually the dower house was a smaller residence. Lovingdon, however, had never purchased any other London homes. If this residence was not left to her, then the decision regarding where she would reside in later years would rest with her son...when he was old enough to care about such things. But at present he was five and cared only that she read him a story before he went to sleep.
The solicitor finally folded his hands on top of the papers and lifted his gaze to his audience of two. His dark hair was peppered with silver. His blue eyes seemed larger because of his spectacles, and he gave the impression they allowed him to see a great deal more than the average man. "Mr. Dodger, I want to thank you for finding time in your busy schedule to be with us this evening," he said solemnly, as befit the occasion.Between the Devil and Desire
. Copyright © by Lorraine Heath. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.