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Authors: Diane Gaston

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BOOK: Regency Wagers
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‘These are lovely. Where did you get them? From Farley?’

‘No,’ she said, indignant that he should think so. ‘They were mine before I met Farley. You may sell them.’

He stared at the jewellery and at her. ‘Not quite yet, Maddy. Keep them for now.’

She carefully rewrapped the package.

‘I have been thinking.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘I have depended upon all of you too long. Poor Sophie, her fingers sore from sewing. You, ready to sell your treasures. Bart, searching for labour I’d not ask an enemy to perform.’

She stroked his cheek. ‘I have caused you this trouble.’

He clasped her hand and held it.

Suddenly shy under his gaze, she glanced down. Her eyes rested on his chest and widened. ‘Devlin, you have scars.’

His torso was riddled with them. Now, thinking about it, she realised she’d felt rough areas on his chest, that day she had touched him and almost made love with him. She had not looked, however. Now, so close to him in the candlelight, she recognised the long scar from the injury in Spain, but there were so many others, short and jagged.

‘It is repulsing, is it not?’ he said.

She touched one of the scars with her finger. ‘Oh, Devlin, how could you think such a thing?’ With gentleness, she traced it, still pink from healing. ‘What happened to you? How did it come about that you have so many?’

‘Waterloo.’

She placed her palm against his firm chest. ‘I know it was at Waterloo. I should like to hear what happened to you.’

He rose, walking over to his window. ‘The tale is not fit for fair ears.’

‘Fustian. Nothing about me is fair.’ She followed him. Standing behind him, she marked the scars on his back with
her fingers. ‘You had to endure this. It cannot be worse for me to hear of it.’

He turned to face her. She placed her hands on his shoulders as he gazed at her. The green of his eyes turned soft as moss. ‘I have a proposition for you, Miss England.’

She stiffened, pulled away, but he held her firm.

‘Not that kind of proposition.’ He took her chin between his thumb and fingers. His expression turned serious again. ‘I will tell you about Waterloo on one condition.’

‘What condition?’ She could imagine no other condition but bedding him. He meant a proposition, after all, no matter how he coloured it. When he touched her like this, she dared hope for it.

He gave her a light kiss on the lips, which merely gave her an urge to kiss him harder in return. ‘I will tell you about Waterloo, if you tell me about how you came to be with Farley.’

She pulled away and rubbed her arms. ‘Nonsense. I told you already that he seduced me. What else is there to tell?’

He crossed the room and picked up the cloth wrapping her necklace and earrings. ‘I want to know how a girl who owned these came to be in Farley’s gaming hell.’

She turned away. She had never spoken of her past to anyone, not even Sophie. In fact, she chastised herself if even a thought of the past invaded her mind.

She faced him. ‘Very well, I will tell you, but not this night. I do not wish to speak of it this night.’

‘You have a bargain, Maddy.’ He returned to her, kissing her on the cheek. ‘I do not wish to speak of any of it tonight.’

The chaste kiss disappointed her. She wished something else from him. She wished to pretend she was the farmer’s housewife readying for bed with her husband. There was no Farley, no Waterloo, no shortage of money. Just days full of useful toil and nights filled with love.

He walked back to the window and stared out at the street for countless minutes. She knew not whether to stay or leave,
but she did not want to leave him, especially with the weight of all their problems on his shoulders.

‘Sophie is teaching me to sew.’ Her voice sounded foolish in the face of his troubled silence.

But he turned to regard her with a kind look in his eye. ‘That is very well. Had you not learned before?’

‘Oh, I was taught, but I did not heed the lessons.’

He chuckled. ‘Your head too full of horses?’

She smiled. ‘Sadly, you are right. I never could keep my mind on much else.’

He sat on the window seat, his long legs stretched out before him. ‘I know precisely what you mean.’

She sat next to him, tucking her legs beneath her and leaning against him. His arm circled around her shoulders. ‘It is a pity that I could not procure employment in a stable. I could do all manner of things there.’ She sighed.

He became silent again, and she struggled to think of some other topic to converse upon. She rested her hand on his knee and in a moment, he covered it with his own warm, strong hand.

‘No, I shall find the way,’ he murmured.

She snuggled against him, the moment acutely precious.

Devlin lifted his hand to her hair, stroking gently. Her locks felt like spun silk beneath his fingers. He inhaled the faint scent of lavender in her hair, and recalled that fragrance from his first meeting of her. After Waterloo, when fever made him delirious and his sisters bathed his forehead with lavender water, his Miss England swam through his dreams.

He had never expected to see her again, and here she was, more wonderful than he could have believed.

He snuggled her closer. She tilted her face to him, the pupils of her eyes wide, her pink lips moist and irresistible.

He kissed her, tasting the sweetness of her, wanting to remove every pain and care from her life and resolving once again to do so. No matter what he must bear.

As his lips gently rested against hers, she whispered, ‘Devlin, I…’

He moved to the tender skin beneath her ear.

‘I will make love to you, Devlin.’

He stopped and searched her face. ‘Only if you truly wish it.’

She cast her gaze down. ‘I do wish it. I know it is wicked of me.’

Lifting her chin with his finger, he forced her to meet his eye. ‘It is not wicked.’

‘But it is,’ she insisted. ‘I know it is.’

‘Well, then, I must be damned indeed.’ He ran his lips over her brow. ‘I wish that much to make love with you.’

Her face flushed pink. ‘It is different for a man.’

‘And how is it different, sweet goose?’ He pulled the pins from her hair, freeing it to tumble over her shoulders.

‘It is no shame for a man to take his pleasure.’ Her countenance was solemn. ‘Men even boast of it.’

The truth of her words shamed him.

He drew his fingers through her hair. ‘Women are made to feel the pleasure, too, Maddy. They are merely expected not to speak of it.’

‘Do you truly believe so?’ Her wide eyes made her appear as innocent as a young virgin. As she must have been, before Farley.

He smiled. ‘I do indeed.’

She gazed at him, a dreamy look on her face.

‘Come.’ He led her to the bed.

She followed almost shyly, like a bride on her first night. He was determined that she should feel every pleasure he could provide for her. He wanted to show her that lovemaking could be beautiful. Enlightening. Forgiving.

He undid the laces of her dress and gently peeled the cloth from her skin. She released a long breath. Next came her corset. As he pulled her shift over her head, she raised her
arms, bringing them down again around his neck. Clinging tightly to him, she kissed him.

Though he throbbed to mate with her that instant, he kept his kiss light. He sensed she also could succumb to the passion of the moment, but he held her back. All she’d known was frenzied, impersonal coupling. He wished to show her more. He wished to show her love.

And he wished to savour each moment of it.

She unfastened his trousers and slid her hands under the cloth until she’d pushed them down to his ankles. As she stood again, she slid her hands up his legs, torso, and shoulders, nearly causing him to abandon his resolve to proceed slowly. He captured her hands in his own and tasted her lips at leisure.

Lifting her on to the bed, he settled beside her, letting his eyes drift down the naked length of her.

Miss England, he had called her that first time, half in jest. She was still so very much like the homeland he loved. Peaceful and pleasing. Exciting and teasing.

He slid his tongue down her neck and covered the rose of her nipple with his mouth. She moaned and arched toward him.

Not yet, Miss England,
he thought. This must be a journey with so languid a pace every part would be savoured and committed to memory.

 

As dawn tried to poke its fingers through the thick morning mist, Devlin sat in shirt and trousers, staring out the window. Madeleine rolled over in the bed, making endearingly incoherent sounds as she did so. His attention shifted to her.

Her beauty took his breath away, as it had that first moment he’d seen her in Farley’s gaming hell. Her dark hair such a contrast to her fair skin; her long eyelashes, so like Linette’s, full against the pink of her cheeks. He memorised her image, just as he had done before returning to Spain.

The eyelashes fluttered and she opened her eyes. The smile she gave him, so peaceful and satisfied, tugged at his heart.

He would see that peace stay with her forever, no matter what the cost to him.

‘Good morning,’ she said, sleep making her voice raspy.

‘Did you sleep well?’ He already knew her reply. While he had hardly captured two winks all night long, she had slept as sound as a kitten.

‘Indeed.’ She stretched, arching her back and extending her arms above her head. ‘And I have the feeling that this will be a lucky day. Today you will find the solution to our problems.’

‘I have done so already.’

She brightened, sitting up straight. ‘You thought of it in your sleep?’

Sleep, indeed. ‘I thought of it last night, but I only decided this morning.’

She sprang from the bed and rushed over to climb into his lap. With her arms around him, she rested her head against his chest. ‘What is the solution, Devlin?’

He closed his eyes. As if lances were piercing his skin again, he steeled himself against the pain.

‘I must marry.’

Chapter Nine

M
adeleine’s heart pounded. Marriage had figured too prominently in her fantasies of late.

‘It was my father’s plan.’ Devlin’s voice vibrated through her body, but it did not soothe. ‘And it is the only means I have of solving our problems.’

He held her more tightly. ‘You see, Maddy, I am a wealthy man. My father bequeathed me a fortune, as he did my sisters and second brother. Ned, of course, has the title and all the entailed property and is as rich as Croesus, but my father saw that each of us would prosper.’

‘I do not understand. You are wealthy, but your brother refuses you money?’ He made no sense.

He laughed drily. ‘There is the rub. My father thought me unfit for my property and wealth. Ned controls the lot until I marry a lady of whom he approves.’

She buried her face into his chest so he would not see. Her fantasies had indeed been foolish. He must marry someone of whom his brother approved. A lady such as the beautiful Marchioness. Not one who came as the prize in a game of cards.

She took a deep breath. ‘So you must marry.’

‘Marriage shall steady me…or so Father believed. I have resisted, Maddy. It seems an abominable reason to marry.’ He squeezed her, his strength conveying his frustration. ‘It is too
soon for me, in any event. I have just done being a soldier. I do not wish—’ He broke off.

Madeleine pulled away and retrieved her clothes from the floor. Suddenly conscious of her nakedness and ashamed of even more that that, she donned her shift, aware of his eyes upon her. She glanced at him and he averted his gaze. Tossing her hair over one shoulder, she slipped into her dress and fumbled with the laces. Devlin came and tied them for her, the light touch of his fingers sending shimmers of pleasure down her back.

‘It is because of me…’ She felt sick inside, unsure if it was because Devlin would once again pay the price for her freedom, or because he might think of bedding her, but never, never would he think of marrying her. ‘I will not allow it.’

‘You have no choice.’ His voice was bleak.

‘I could leave here.’ She set her chin firmly. ‘You would not need to marry, then.’

He turned her around and held her arms firmly, forcing her to look at him. ‘You would be driven back to Farley. Or worse. Believe it, there can be worse.’

‘I will never go back to him.’ She shuddered at the thought. ‘I will find employment. I am already learning to sew.’

He regarded her with tenderness. ‘Yes. I am proud of your efforts, but, even if you attain Sophie’s skill, it is but a pittance to earn. I counted her money, you recall.’

‘I will contrive something.’

‘No, you will not. I have been around this in my mind in all manner of ways.’ He released a ragged breath. ‘I must marry.’

Someone else. Some other woman. A lady.

‘You are not responsible for me,’ she continued, struggling to keep the misery at bay.

He brushed a lock of hair off her forehead. ‘But I am, Maddy. I am responsible for the lot of you.’

‘I could walk out. You could not stop me.’ She glared.

He shook his head. ‘Do not be foolish. You must think of Linette.’

She closed her eyes. He was correct. She would sell her soul to spare Linette a future like hers.

Pulling away, she went to Devlin’s bed and smoothed the covers they had disordered, trying not to recall the wanton pleasure of loving him. Her carnal pleasure had come at great cost.

He spoke from behind her. ‘I will see to both of you, Maddy. A snug little house for you. Whatever you want. School for Linette. I will make her future secure, and you will not want for anything.’ He turned her around to face him. ‘It is the only way. I will not permit you and Linette to suffer.’

His countenance, so sincere, with a look so loving, caused tears to prick her eyelids. ‘I cannot like being a burden to you,’ she said lamely.

He gathered her in his arms, holding her tightly against his chest. ‘You will never be a burden. My wealth is such that I may easily afford to provide you and Linette a life of ease.’ He took a deep breath and his chest rose tighter against her. ‘But I must have a wife to do so.’

He would be that rich? But he had been satisfied to count pennies and seek common employment. Why had he done so?

Her mind seized on an anxious thought. ‘Is there a woman for whom you have already spoken?’

He petted her hair. ‘No, my sweet, there is no one else.’

She glanced up at him. His green eyes were soft, though tiny lines of worry etched their corners. She lifted her fingers to feel the rough stubble of his beard. Her childish fantasy of a pirate whisking her away flashed through her mind. Would that it could be true, that this unshaven, half-dressed, hot-blooded man would whisk her away. Not send her away, as fate decreed.

His eyes darkened with passion. Adjusting his hold on her, he captured her lips. The kiss, rough and as yearning as her heart, sent fire through her. She uttered a deep, needful sound
and grasped at his shirt, wanting to tear it away from where her hands longed to touch.

His hands untied the laces of her dress as he backed the two of them against the bed. She let her dress slip to the floor, not caring if she stepped on it. He lifted her on to the bed and moved back to rid himself of the shirt and unfasten his trousers. She lifted her shift. He climbed atop her and she relished the weight and nearness of him. His male scent filled her nostrils along with the more primitive smell of desire.

He kissed her again and she arched to him, wanting to join with him, the need more urgent now that she knew this golden time with him would end. She whispered for him to proceed with haste, and he made ready to comply.

‘Mama!’ Linette’s plaintive cry sounded through the door.

‘Deuce,’ Devlin muttered.

‘I have to see to her.’ Madeleine said, fighting her body’s craving to do otherwise.

‘I know.’ Devlin sighed and moved off her, grabbing her dress, which she hurriedly donned. He worked the laces as she headed for the door.

He stopped her at the door with a quick, regretful kiss. ‘See to the child. I’ll come below stairs soon.’

With one glance back, Madeleine opened the door to her room and headed for the outstretched chubby arms of her daughter.

Devlin dragged his hand through his hair and stared at mother and child, desire still churning through him. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths. Arousal faded little, but calm did not return.

He watched Madeleine tend to her child with confidence, efficiency, and calm good humour. How could she manage that when his body still throbbed with wanting her?

Lord, he did not want to leave her when their passion flamed like this. Marrying would not have to cause this to end, would it? He could continue to visit her, still warm her bed.

He quietly shut the door.

No, he would not see her again after the damned marriage. It would be too cruel to this hapless future wife for their marriage to include a mistress.

The wretched course he had decided upon was the correct one. The only one. But it sickened him all the same. To damn another lady to a future without love merely to secure his fortune was detestable, but not to do so meant damning Madeleine and her child to a living hell.

He prowled the room, unable to quiet the storm of emotion inside. He must give up Madeleine. It was the only way to ensure her a good life. Marriage was his only choice.

The walls of the room closed in on him, and his breathing quickened. He shut his eyes and yearned for escape, for freedom.

Until Waterloo, soldiering had been his freedom. Living by his own wits with men who understood what was essential in life. Making the most of each day. Grateful for food, shelter, the occasional warmth of a willing woman. Laughing and drinking and sleeping under the stars. Surging with excitement, raging against the enemy. Testing skill, courage and luck. He would trade everything to go back to those days in Spain.

What blithering nonsense. Those days had vanished with Waterloo.

A heavy fatigue overtook him, but he proceeded to shave and dress. He would put the best face he could on this day, for Madeleine’s sake.

Below stairs, he walked past the dining room and smiled. Their little household rarely supped at the table there, except for the last meal of the day. He liked the informality of the kitchen where they gathered as equals in this venture to survive.

That would vanish, too, with his decision. When his money flowed again, he would be master.

As he neared the kitchen door he heard Madeleine’s voice.

‘Sit, Sophie. Please do. I will tend to the meal.’

Sophie’s inevitable protest dissolved into a fit of coughing.

Madeleine looked up as he entered. Linette clambered over the chairs to get to him.

‘Deddy!’ The little girl jumped into Devlin’s arms.

‘Devlin,’ Madeleine said, ‘please tell Sophie to sit and allow me to do the work. She is ill.’

‘I am not ill.’ The little maid, sallow-faced with dark circles under her eyes, choked on her words and turned her head to cough some more.

Devlin opened his mouth, but had no chance to speak.

‘I cannot see how she fooled Bart. He never would have gone out had he known.’ Madeleine fussed at putting bowls on the table.

‘Deddy play?’ Linette batted her long lashes at Devlin.

Madeleine whirled to the child. ‘No, Linette, sit here and eat.’ She swept over and took the child from Devlin’s arms.

She put Linette back in her chair, raised high by a wooden box upon which Linette now stood, not sat. Madeleine continued, ‘Dev, please do something. Sophie will not listen to me.’

As if to prove Madeleine’s words, Sophie pushed her hands on the table to raise herself. Devlin pressed his fingers to his brow.

‘All of you, sit!’ he commanded.

The three sat, like obedient soldiers.

He glared from one to the other. ‘Linette, do as your mother says. Eat. Maddy, stop fussing. If you wish to ready the meal then bloody do it.’ He softened his voice for Sophie. ‘Little one, do not exert yourself. It is foolishness when Maddy is capable of a simple breakfast.’

Sophie did as she was told, coughing softly, eyes downcast.

Madeleine rose to pour a cup of tea for Sophie and Devlin. ‘You need not have snapped at me.’

He glanced at her, regretting his burst of temper, but her
eyes held the hint of a smile and a softer expression that spoke of what had passed between them the previous night.

‘I apologise.’ His eyes held hers for that moment. He hoped she knew he was sorry for more than a fit of temper.

Between coughs, Sophie said, ‘I need to tend to my sewing.’

Madeleine started to protest, but Devlin shot her a glance to keep quiet. She spooned him a bowl of porridge.

‘You need sew no longer, little one. We have had a change in fortune. In fact, I intend to return your earnings to you.’

Sophie’s eyes grew wide. ‘We have money?’

‘We will by this afternoon, I expect. I will call on my brother again. He will give me the money this time.’ He cautiously took a spoonful of the lumpy porridge. Perhaps by the morrow they would be feasting on boiled eggs and ham.

‘You see, I will do as my brother wishes and he will advance me the money.’ Devlin would leave further explanation of their change in fortune to Madeleine, not knowing how to tell Sophie about his need to marry.

‘May…may I continue with the sewing?’ Sophie asked, her eyes darting warily.

He leaned to her and placed his hand on her arm. ‘You may do whatever you wish. I do shout and bluster, but you are a free woman, Sophie. Not mine to command.’

Madeleine stood behind him with the pot of tea. She brushed against him as she poured.

‘Where the devil is Bart?’

‘Gone to find work,’ Madeleine said.

‘Deuce, you did not stop him?’

‘He left before I came down.’

Bart would be out searching for some sort of back-breaking labour, or something so dangerous, only a few of the out-of-work war veterans would compete for the job.

‘He went to a lead factory in Islington,’ Sophie said, before a cough stopped her.

‘When?’

She held her throat, as if that would hold back another coughing spell. ‘An hour or more, I think.’

He could hire a hack and catch up to him. Devlin took a quick sip of his tea and rushed off to warn his sergeant not to risk his neck another time for Devlin’s sake.

 

He found Bart at the factory door where he and others hung about, hoping to be chosen for a job. The factory billowed black smoke and flecks of black ash covered the pavement and buildings. How could anyone abide such dismal surroundings?

‘Come on, Bart. Let us get you out of this damned place.’ He gestured his friend over to the hack.

Bart did not leave his place in the ragged line that had formed. ‘It is honest work, Dev, and pays well.’

‘You no longer need to break your back. Our fortunes have changed.’

Bart stared at him, hands on his waist. After a moment he abandoned the line and walked over to the hack.

Devlin explained the whole business as they rode back. Bart responded with a grim expression. ‘It is right enough, Dev, but I do not like it all the same.’ He shot Devlin a suspicious glance. ‘Are you certain you have thought this through?’

Devlin nodded, frowning. ‘This is not one of my impulsive acts. I have sat up half the night figuring this. We are mere days from having no blunt at all. What else can we do?’

The two men stared at the buildings passing by, the only sounds the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones and the shouts of vendors selling their wares.

‘When the time comes,’ Devlin said at last, ‘I want you to stay with Madeleine.’ He did not have to explain what he meant.

‘We have not been apart since Spain. I’ll not desert you now.’ Bart’s thick brows knitted together in one straight line.

Devlin regarded his friend with a wan smile. ‘Sophie will
not wish to leave Madeleine, I expect, and I doubt you will wish to leave Sophie. Am I correct?’

Bart did not answer, but neither did his craggy brows move from their stern expression.

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