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Authors: Diane Gaston

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BOOK: Regency Wagers
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Devlin walked to his entrance halfway round to the back.

Wait until Bart saw what he had won at cards. The sergeant’s face when they came in the door would make this whole escapade worthwhile.

Devlin had once saved Bart’s life on the battlefield. Ever since, the older man made it his mission to take care of him. Primary among Bart’s self-imposed duties was tempering Devlin’s rash, impulsive nature—a task at which he was doomed to fail.

Live for the moment.
As a creed, it was as good as any.

Hmmph, more like a curse, Devlin thought. That particular creed had gotten him sent down from a school or two, but, from the time his late father had purchased his colours, it had meant survival. Now, however, it meant he had the charge of two women and a child.

He glanced over his shoulder. The women were not following. They stood on the spot where the hackney had left them, looking as lost as waifs.

Devlin cursed himself. They presumed he would abandon them. When had he ever passed by a creature in need? In his youth, one of his impulsive habits had been collecting stray animals which he’d then had to conceal from his father.

He walked back to the women. Three more strays to add to his collection.

‘This way, if you please.’ He wrested the portmanteau from the maid again. ‘My abode is humble, to be sure, but will have to do.’

Miss England stood her ground. ‘You need not trouble yourself, Lieutenant.’

‘Nonsense,’ he replied. ‘We shall contrive something. The streets are too dangerous for you.’

With halting steps she followed him through the narrow alley. Her maid crept close behind. The sky had brightened, showing signs of becoming a magnificent day.

Devlin knocked on the door and only a moment passed before it opened. ‘Good morning, Bart,’ he said in a cheerful manner. ‘I trust you have not been up all night waiting for me.’

‘Half the night is all, then I consigned you to Jericho and took to—’ Pale brown eyes in a weathered face widened.

‘I’ve brought guests.’ Devlin smiled as he dragged in the portmanteau. Bart’s astonished expression was as rewarding as he could have wished. ‘Not guests, really. Charges, you might say.’ He stepped aside to let the women enter. ‘Bart, may I present my charges.’ He swept his arm in a graceful gesture. ‘Miss England and Sophie.’

The little maid stepped forward cautiously and curtsied.

Devlin tossed Bart an amused glance as he shrugged off his coat. ‘Where are your manners, Bart? Take the lady’s cloak.’

Bart, mouth open, did as he was bid.

Devlin turned to Miss England. ‘Allow me to assist you.’ He stepped behind her and unclasped the fastening under her chin, removing the garment.

As the cloak fell away, the child in Miss England’s arms whimpered in her sleep.

‘My God,’ exclaimed Bart.

Devlin laughed. ‘This is Miss England’s daughter…um…’

‘Linette.’ Miss England turned to face Devlin, and he had his first good look at her.

His memory had not failed him. Her face was almost regal in its loveliness. Her skin shone like fine porcelain, except for finger-shaped splotches of blue. Her lips were the identical colour to a rose that had grown in his mother’s garden. Her lush mahogany-coloured hair cascaded down her shoulders, the perfect frame for a perfect face. She met his appreciation
with a bold gaze, her intelligent blue eyes reflecting both youthful innocence and knowledge far beyond her years.

Devlin’s breath left his lungs.

‘I…I do not know your true name…’ he managed, feeling his throat tighten at the vision of so much beauty.

She paused, her eyes searching his face. ‘My name is Madeleine.’ She added a faint smile. ‘Madeleine England.’

He remembered the feel of her bare skin next to his, the lushness of her full breasts, and the ecstasy of her passion. His eyes swept over her as his body came alive to her again.

The child sleeping against her shoulder brought him back to his senses, a tiny girl, a miniature of the mother, very much resembling the wax dolls on his sisters’ old toy shelf. The child’s feathery long lashes cast shadows on the rosy cheek that lay against Madeleine’s shoulder.

What the deuce was he to do with the lot of them?

Bart broke out into guffaws of laughter. ‘Cast yourself into the briars again, have you, Dev?’

Madeleine lifted her chin, refusing to let it tremble in disappointment as she regarded the two men. At Farley’s, her vision blurred by Farley’s blow, she’d thought she dreamed Lieutenant Devlin Steele. Lord, she’d dreamed of him often enough. But when she’d blinked her eyes, it truly had been he.

She understood too well the look he’d given her a moment ago. It spoke of wanting to bed her. Foolish of her to forget this would be his motive for rescuing her. He could not be the brave and gallant dragoon of her fantasy. It had always been a silly fancy, after all, even if visions of him riding up on a tall stallion had comforted many a night.

Especially the nights Lord Farley came to share her bed.

The lieutenant ran his hand through his hair and replied to the other man’s remark. ‘I’ve not quite worked out what to do.’

She knew what he would do. He would cast them off as soon as he could. He must dislike her bringing Sophie and
Linette. Perhaps if she’d come to him alone he’d have been content to keep her.

No matter. She would go nowhere without her daughter and her friend. They depended upon her.

She avoided looking at him. ‘We shall not trouble you, sir. It is light outside. I am sure we may be safely on our way.’ She reached for her cloak. ‘Come, Sophie.’

The slight figure was in mid-yawn, her lank yellow hair falling across her face. The other man reached out an arm for her as she staggered.

‘The lass is dead on her feet,’ he protested.

The lieutenant rubbed his brow, as Madeleine struggled with her cloak. The child squirmed and started to whimper. The cloak slipped to the floor. She tried to comfort Linette, swaying to and fro with her as she had done since her infancy.

‘Do not be foolish, Miss England.’ He picked up the cloak and tossed it out of her reach. ‘You confided you have nowhere to go.’

‘It is none of your concern.’ She attempted to pass by him to reach her cloak.

He stepped in her path and put his hand on her arm. ‘You will stay here.’

She wrenched her arm away. The child started to whimper.

‘You have made her cry,’ Madeleine said. Much easier to be angry at him than to worry about where she would go if they did walk out the door. What would happen to Linette out there in the streets?

‘I have made her cry?’ His eyebrows lifted. ‘Do you believe she will fare better if I allow you to leave? Do you have money enough to take care of her?’

She could not meet his eye.

He gently took her chin in his hand and made her look at him. ‘You do not have money enough even for a hackney coach, do you?’

Her little girl stopped crying and stared with wide eyes at the man. ‘Coach?’ the child said.

Madeleine clucked at Linette, taking advantage of the opportunity to turn her back on Devlin. Inside panic reigned. Where would they go? Not back to Farley. Never back to Farley, but where? ‘I do not need your concern.’

He marched around to face her again, and his voice became quieter. ‘I beg to differ with you. If you will recall, it was I who intervened when Farley struck you.’ He reached toward her cheek.

She shrugged him away, refusing to let him touch her. ‘What does that signify? It is not the first time he has hit me.’

His hand remained poised in the air, his expression conveying acute sympathy. She should not allow herself to believe he truly cared, no matter how much the fantasy of that very thing had sustained her these few years.

The child squirmed in her arms and pulled away to grasp his fingers. The child giggled. Devlin stepped closer, and the tiny girl tugged on his neckcloth. This time when he touched Madeleine’s bruised cheek, she did not draw away. Could not draw away. Speech became impossible.

‘He will not hurt you again,’ he murmured.

He became the hero of her daydreams again. How could she believe in him? Other young men had vowed to place her under their protection. They never returned, or, if they did return, never spoke such a promise again. Farley had seen to it. Why had Farley allowed this man to take her? Was it some sort of trick?

She glanced at her lieutenant. His eyes were warm and full of a resolve she would at least pretend was real. His face again became the one in her weary daydreams, conjured up after her toils were done and she was free to seek her bed alone. He always smiled at her in her dreams, his dimple winking at her.

Now his manly face filled her with excitement. The memory of his gentle kiss and peace-shattering lovemaking returned and agitated her. It was acceptable to dream and remember, but to let herself feel again? To hope? No, her only
hope was to contrive to support Linette and Sophie, two people she could depend upon because they needed her so.

Linette tore out the folds of Devlin’s neckcloth as he leaned down. His lips came closer. Madeleine’s heart thudded against her chest.

‘I settled the lass in my cot.’ The voice of Devlin’s servant, Bart, broke in, full of indignation.

Devlin smiled at the man. ‘In your cot, Bart? Quick work.’

‘I’ll harbour no insults, if you please.’ This man did not speak as servant to master. ‘If you’ve managed to get us any funds, I’ll see about some food. Some milk for the wee one.’

Devlin marched over to the table and emptied his pockets. ‘Good news. We shall eat well.’

Bart picked up a few coins and shoved the rest back to Devlin. ‘See you try to hold on to these for a bit.’ He reached for a coat on a hook and went out the door, closing it silently.

‘He is your servant?’ Madeleine asked, conscious of being alone with him once more.

As if reading her thoughts, Devlin regarded her with smouldering eyes. ‘More than that, I suppose. We managed through Spain and Belgium together.’

‘Belgium,’ she murmured. After news of Waterloo, for days she had pored over the names of the dead, weeping in relief when she finally found him listed among the wounded.

No matter. Now that his servant had absented himself, her lieutenant would soon wish payment for her rescue.

Her heart pounded. She must not feel this excitement at being near him. She must expect him to be as selfish and capricious as other men. Madeleine adjusted her hold on Linette, who rubbed her eyes and flopped her head on Madeleine’s shoulder again.

Devlin came near to her again. ‘The child must be getting heavy for you. Come. It is time for bed.’

Devlin led her into his bedchamber, acutely aware of blood thundering through his veins. By God, she was more desirable than that first, magic time with her.

As she regarded the room with dismay, he saw it through her eyes. A smallish room, furnished with a tall double chest of drawers in a style long out of fashion and a large four-poster bed with faded curtains. His old trunk was tucked in the corner, clothing spilling out.

Her gaze rested on the bed. What might it be like to share that bed with her? To tangle with her in its sheets?

This would not do. She appeared as if she would collapse at any moment. The child was no infant, nearly three years old, he’d guess. A sturdy bundle, and Madeleine had not let go of her for nearly an hour.

‘Where shall Linette sleep?’ she asked nervously.

‘In the bed, where else?’

She straightened, her defiant chin lifting. ‘My lord, I am prepared to repay you for your generosity, but I must insist on privacy for Linette. She must not be in the same room, let alone the same bed.’

He raised his eyebrows. Did she think him unmindful of the child? Did she think him so base as to take advantage of her?

‘And I’m loath to leave her alone in a strange place,’ she continued, her mouth set in firm determination.

He stared into her blue eyes and the breath left his lungs. He let his gaze travel down the length of her. Her red silk dress clung to her form and the weight of her daughter pulled its low neckline down lower. The attire was pure tart, but her bearing regal. The combination set his senses aflame, though he had no intention of acting upon them, ill timed as they were.

A smile not absent of regret spread across his face. ‘I meant for you and the child to share the bed. Did you think I meant otherwise?’

She blushed, bringing a most innocent pink to her cheeks, her eyes downcast. ‘You know very well what I thought.’

He stepped behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. The little girl’s curls tickled his fingers. For a moment he let
his fingers caress Madeleine’s soft flesh. He held her against him, inhaling the scent of lavender in her hair. From behind her, he planted a chaste kiss on her cheek and gave her a push toward the bed.

‘Sleep well, Madeleine.’

Chapter Three

T
he damp chill seeped through Devlin’s clothing. His twisted limbs would not move. Pain had settled into a constant ache, made worse with each breath, worse still by the rancid stench of blood. Of death. Moans of the dying filled the night. The sounds grew louder and louder, until they merged into one piercing wail. An agonised sound. The sound of fear and horror and pain.

Coming from his mouth.

He woke, his heart pounding, breath panting. His vision cleared, revealing faded red-brocade curtains made moderately brighter by sunlight. What were brocade curtains doing at Waterloo?

He sat up, his mind absorbing the round mahogany table in the corner with its decanter of port, the mantel holding one chipped porcelain vase. His back ached from contorting himself on the settee. It had been the dream. He hung his head between his knees until the disturbing images receded. Had he cried out in his sleep?

The wail again sounded in his ears, coming from the bedchamber this time, not from his own soul.

He leapt from the settee and flung open the door. Madeleine paced the room, clutching her little girl. The child cried and struggled in her arms. Madeleine’s red dress was creased with
wrinkles. That she’d not bothered to undress before sleeping moved him to compassion. How exhausted she must have been.

The child gave a loud, anguished cry, and Madeleine quickened her pace.

‘What the devil is going on?’

She spun toward him, her youthful face pinched in worry. ‘She is feverish.’

‘She is ill?’ Devlin’s head throbbed from the previous night’s excess of brandy.

‘Yes. She coughs, too.’ Her voice caught. ‘I have never seen her so ill.’

‘Good God,’ Devlin said. ‘We must do something.’

‘I don’t know what to do!’

Tears glistened in her eyes. The child’s wailing continued unchecked. He had not bargained for a sick child.

‘Bart!’ he yelled, rushing back into the parlour. ‘Bart! Where are you?’

Bart emerged from his room, Madeleine’s small companion like a shadow behind him. The sergeant, his craggy eyebrows knitting together, protectively held her back. The gesture irritated Devlin. Did Bart think him dangerous to young females?

‘What in thunder?’ A scold was written on Bart’s face.

‘The child is sick. We must do something.’ He stood in the middle of the room, doing nothing.

‘The wee one is sick?’ parroted Bart, standing just as paralysed.

‘Linette!’ Sophie rushed past Bart and ran to Madeleine, who had followed Devlin into the room. She frantically felt the child’s forehead.

‘She is burning up!’ she exclaimed. ‘Maddy, sit down. Let’s loosen her clothes. Mr Bart, if you please, some cool water and some clean rags.

‘Clean rags?’ Bart said, still immobile.

‘Make haste!’

At Sophie’s words, Bart sprang into action, drawing water from the pump and bringing it to the women, both fussing over the child. Finding clean rags was more of a challenge. He finally brought a stack of towels and bade them to cut them up, if necessary. Sophie dipped one towel in the water, wrung it out and placed it on the child’s chest. Madeleine mopped the little girl’s brow with another.

The child seemed to settle for a moment, but, before Devlin could relax, broke out in a spasm of coughing.

‘Deuce,’ said Devlin, barely audible and still rooted to the floor.

Madeleine flashed him an anxious look. ‘I am attempting to quiet her, my lord.’

‘I did not complain,’ he protested.

Her eyes filled with tears. ‘I am at a loss to do more.’

‘I would be honoured to assist, if someone would instruct me.’ No one heeded him.

Madeleine sniffed and patted Linette’s head with the damp cloth.

Her friend regarded him with a wary expression. ‘We could try to give her a drink of water.’

Before Devlin could move to the small alcove that served as the kitchen, Bart delivered Sophie a cup of water.

‘Let me try to give her a sip,’ Madeleine said.

Linette flailed her arms, jostling Madeleine, who spilled the water on her daughter and herself. Devlin walked to the cupboard, removed another cup, and placed in it a tiny bit of water. He handed this to Madeleine.

‘Try a bit at a time,’ he suggested.

She did not look up to acknowledge his act, but she was able to pour a small amount into the child’s mouth. He took the empty cup and poured a bit more from the fuller one. Again the child accepted the drink.

Devlin was feeling rather proud of himself at having been so useful, when the child began another spell of coughing.
Madeleine sat the little girl on her knees and leaned her over to pat her gently on the back.

The child promptly vomited the water all over Devlin’s stockinged feet.

‘Damn.’

Madeleine gasped. Sophie grabbed the wet towel and wiped his feet, kneeling like a slave girl. Bart glared at him as if he were somehow solely responsible for the child’s ill health.

‘Enough. Enough.’ He stepped away from Sophie’s ministrations. She burst into tears and ran from the room.

Bart glared at him. ‘Now look what you’ve done. You’ve frightened the lass.’ He rushed after her.

Devlin reached for his head. Bart, he supposed, would not be inclined to brew the remedy for his excess of brandy. The child wailed again.

The sound triggered memories. Voices of dying men. His knees trembled, and he feared them buckling underneath him. The dream of Waterloo assailed his waking moments. With it came the terror that had only been too real.

Clamping down on his panic, he rushed into his bedchamber and pulled fresh stockings from the chest. He shrugged into his coat, and retrieved his boots from the parlour where he’d left them. Without a word, for he could not guarantee his words would be coherent, he rushed out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.

Madeleine flinched at the sound and held her coughing daughter against her shoulder, still patting gently. Well, good riddance to Lieutenant Devlin Steele, she told herself, battling the disillusionment of his abandoning her at such a time.

‘Was that the door?’ Bart asked, coming back into the room.

‘He left,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders.

‘Hmmph.’ The man pursed his lips.

Linette settled into a fitful sleep. Though her skin burned like a furnace, Madeleine could not let go of her.

The stocky man surveyed her. Not as tall as the lieutenant and a good ten years older, he seemed solid as a rock.

His gaze softened when lighting on Linette. ‘Ma’am, would you and the lass be all right if I went out for a bit? I’ve a mind there are some things we may be needing.’

A rock that easily rolled away. She sighed inwardly. It was foolishness to hope for assistance from any man.

But Devlin had assisted her in the most consequential way. He had rescued her from Farley, when he need not have done. He was under no obligation to assist her further, however. After Linette’s distress he would surely wish them speedily gone. Madeleine’s lips set together in firm resolve. He would have to put up with all of them until Linette became well.

If Linette became well.

Her throat tightened. Her child meant everything to her. She’d risked Farley’s wrath to give birth to Linette and to keep her. Her daughter was the only worthwhile part of her life.

Sophie appeared at her side. ‘Mr Bart went out. Do you think the master will return soon?’

‘Lieutenant Steele?’ Madeleine would not call him master. ‘I very much doubt it. I fear Linette’s illness displeases him.’

‘Is Linette better? She’s quiet.’ Sophie leaned over and brushed the child’s dark curls with her fingers.

‘She sleeps fitfully and is so very hot.’ She dabbed at the child’s face with the cool cloth.

Sophie wandered about the room aimlessly, and Madeleine watched her, needing some distraction. The room was comfortably fitted to double as parlour and dining area, but its once-fashionable furnishings showed signs of wear. The carpet had lost its nap in places, and the cushioned seats looked faded and worn. Had not Devlin said his brother was a marquess? Perhaps the family had more title than blunt. Not that it at all signified. It was far superior to Farley’s richly done-up rooms.

Unbidden thoughts of home came, mahogany tables pol
ished to mirror finish, sofas and armchairs covered in rich velvet. No threadbare furnishings there. She could see herself bounding through the rooms, her scolding governess in hot pursuit.

Linette stirred and Madeleine’s attention immediately shifted to her. It never did any good to recall those days, in any event.

‘Should I unpack our clothes, do you think?’ Sophie asked.

Perhaps if they appeared settled in, they might delay an eventual departure. ‘That would be good. I fear I cannot help you, though.’

‘Oh, Maddy, do not trouble yourself. You have your hands full.’ Her waiflike friend smiled at Linette. ‘You ought to lie down with the babe.’

Her arms ached from holding Linette, and she had slept only a couple of hours before the child’s cries woke her. ‘I suppose you are right. I will bring her into the lieutenant’s bed.’

She carried Linette to the bedchamber, placed her in the centre of the bed, and climbed in next to her. The sheets and pillow held Devlin’s scent as they had the night before. She had dreamed of him walking toward her to a bed like this. He would gently brush the hair from her face and lean to kiss her. She had dreamed of this Devlin many times.

It took no more than a moment to fall exhausted into sleep.

 

The banging of the door woke her. She immediately felt for Linette’s forehead, still too hot.

‘Where the devil is she? I’ve brought a doctor.’ Devlin’s voice came from the other room. ‘Where’s the child? Has the fever broke? Deuce, I’ve been to Mayfair and back. Found the doctor three houses down.’

As the door of the bedchamber opened, Madeleine had a glimpse of Sophie skittering away. Devlin charged in, a short, spry figure behind him. He had mentioned a doctor. For Linette.

The doctor wore a kindly smile in a round countenance. His coat was shabby and the leather satchel he carried was battered and worn. He came directly to Linette. ‘Is this our little patient? Here, let me have a look at her.’

Madeleine rose quickly and handed Linette over to him. He sat in a wooden chair and spoke softly to the child as he peeked into her mouth and examined her all over. Madeleine watched the doctor’s expression for a clue as to his thoughts. She chewed on her lip. Devlin came to her side and put his arm around her. Needing his strength, she leaned against him.

Finally the doctor handed Linette back to her. ‘She has a putrid throat. Nothing to signify under ordinary circumstances, but I cannot like her fever. How long has she suffered thus?’

‘This…this morning,’ Madeleine stammered. Devlin squeezed her closer.

The doctor smiled, kind crinkles at the corners of his eyes. ‘Well, she seems a sturdy child. A little bleeding may suffice to throw off the fever.’ He rummaged in his bag.

‘Bleeding?’ Madeleine said warily.

‘Yes, just a little. Come hold her.’

Madeleine sat on the bed and placed Linette in her lap. The doctor opened a small container and, with long pointed tweezers, removed the ringed worm.

‘Hold her arm, if you please.’

Devlin stood his ground, though every impulse shouted at him to flee. He recalled the doctors placing such creatures on his arm. The memory belonged to the time of delirium and pain, when he fancied the leeches would consume him alive. Madeleine sat so composed, so resolute in assisting the doctor.

His arms prickled with the sensation now being experienced by the little girl. She was too weak to struggle, as limp as his sister’s dolls when they carried them about, as he had been those months ago in Brussels.

The child will feel better after the bleeding, he reminded himself. It had been so for him.

Finally the leech fell away, satiated, and the doctor placed the creature back in its container. He packed up his bag while Madeleine tucked Linette into the bed.

The doctor took Madeleine’s hand. ‘You have taken good care of her thus far. Try not to lose heart. I have some powders that may assist, as well.’

Madeleine nodded, looking unconsoled. The doctor frowned worriedly at Devlin and gestured for him to follow out of the room. Devlin escorted the doctor out.

When outside, the doctor paused, glancing worriedly back into the apartment. ‘The child’s fever is very high. Only time will tell if she will recover.’ He handed Devlin a packet of powders and gave instruction how to use them. ‘I shall return tomorrow to see how she fares.’ He patted Devlin’s shoulder.

Devlin pushed some coins into the man’s palm. The doctor placed them in his pocket, not glancing at the amount. Smiling reassuringly, he took his leave.

Devlin returned to the bedchamber. Madeleine stood beside the bed where the child slept.

‘He told you it is hopeless, did he not?’ she said, rubbing her arms.

Devlin attempted a smile. ‘Indeed, he said no such thing. He gave me the powders and told me how to mix them. He will return tomorrow to see how she fares.’

‘She will not die?’ Her voice trembled.

He walked over to her and gently brushed the hair off her face. ‘She will recover. You are overwrought. Come, sit. I will wager you have not eaten.’ He found a chair and brought it next to the bed. ‘Where did your friend and Bart go?’

‘Her name is Sophie, Lieutenant.’ Her voice still shook.

‘And mine is Devlin.’ He tapped her nose with his finger. He gazed at the little girl. ‘The child will sleep, I think.’


Her
name is Linette.’

Devlin touched a lock of the child’s hair. ‘I know.’

He heard the door open and went into the other room. Bart entered, carrying pieces of wood.

‘What’s all this?’ Devlin asked.

Bart cleared his throat. ‘I took the liberty of procuring a bed for the wee one. A rocking chair, as well. The poor babe needs a place to sleep.’

Devlin smiled at him. Bart was a practical man. ‘Well done, my friend.’ He had not thought of such a necessity.

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