Love s Lies
128 pages
English

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Love's Lies

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128 pages
English

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Description

Jasmine is a woman of gentle breeding, living on the dangerous streets of Regency London. Can her best friend, Lord Chancy, protect her from deception, lies and murder? Is her childhood love, Payne, a friend or a deadly enemy? Can their love weather the storm that is coming?

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Publié par
Date de parution 12 mai 2015
Nombre de lectures 4
EAN13 9781771452427
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Love’s Lies
 
By Killarney Sheffield
 
ISBN: 978-1-77145-242-7
 

 
Copyright 2014 by Killarney Sheffield
Cover art by Michelle Lee
 
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rightsunder copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may bereproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, ortransmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical,photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior writtenpermission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of thisbook.
 
Prologue
 
 
Jasmine scrambled up the bank following thepath she seen Payne take only moments before, unmindful of heralready soiled satin dress. When she topped the rise she shaded hereyes and looked down the gentle slope. Twelve year old Payne ambledalong the path, a fishing pole slung over his shoulder. A sighescaped her before she took a deep breath and hollered, “Payne!Payne!”
He swung around and squinted up at her as sheskipped down the path toward him. “Jasmine, are you following meagain?”
She tripped, righted herself and skidded to ahalt before the object of her affection. “Nuh’uh. I was jus’ outfor a walk and saw you.”
He grinned and tweaked one of her red curlsthat had already escaped from its ribbon. “I’ll bet your mother oryour governess doesn’t know you’re out here, do they?”
With a pretty pout she gazed up at him.“Don’t wanna’ do any more silly stitchin’. Why can’t I go fishingwith you? It is most definitely more fun.”
He shook his head. “You know little girlsdon’t do things like fish, Jas.”
Arms akimbo she put on her most regal air.“I’m no girl, I’m almost eight and that’s damned near fullgrowed.”
“Jasmine Emily Wentworth, you mind yourtongue!” Payne scolded. “Ladies don’t use that kind of language,where did you hear such a word anyway?”
She shrugged. “From Father, he cussed at thestable boy one day when I was hiding in the loft.”
Payne rolled his eyes. “Run along home,Jas.”
Crossing her arms she put on her best pout.“Aw, come on, Payne. I jus’ wanna help you put the worms on thehook.”
“You are an odd child, Jas.” With a sigh hetook her hand. “All right, you can come fishing with me, but onlyfor a little while and no whining at me to put back the fish Icatch. I mean to eat them. Your mother is going to be fit to betied and she’ll probably tell my mother I’m corrupting youagain.”
She frowned. “What’s ‘rupting?”
“Cor-rupting, Jasmine. It means turning youaway from the lady you are supposed to be.”
“Yer so smart.” With a bright smile sheskipped along beside him to keep up with his longer strides. “Ijus’ love you, Payne.”
He squeezed her hand. “You don’t know whatlove is yet, Jas. Besides, your father will pick a man for you whocan support you and advance you in social circles, love will not beconsidered.”
“Don’t care.” Jasmine tossed her curls. “I’mnever gonna’ marry anyone but you, Payne, I promise, no matter ifFather drags me behind his horse.”
He chuckled. “Don’t say things like that,Jas. Eighteen is a long time away yet. You might change yourmind.”
“Nope.” She tugged his hand and looked intothe eyes of the boy she adored since she could walk. “I will loveyou forever and ever, Payne. I promise.”
 
 
Chapter One
 
 
“Stop! Thief!”
Payne paused in the steady spring drizzle andlooked over his shoulder as a young woman hiked up her skirts andmade a mad dash into the busy street. The hood on her cloak fellback and long curly red locks streamed behind her like an unfurledflag of victory. She headed in his direction, nimbly dodging fastmoving horses and buggies. His breath caught in his throat as thegirl narrowly escaped being run down by a mail coach. He couldn’thelp but hope she made it through the heavy traffic in onepiece.
His attention was diverted by the vendor. Theportly man ran down the walk, yelling, trying to find a break inthe busy tide of buggy traffic so he could follow the girl safely.Finally he stopped and threw his hands up in defeat.
Payne looked back into the street for thegirl. After a couple of seconds he spotted her almost abreast ofhim. Cheeks flushed and eyes dancing with mischief she sprinteddown the middle of the street. Slowing her pace she looked over hershoulder. Seeing the vendor had given up the chase, she laughed andlooked ahead again.
It was too late however to avoid a trottinghorse pulling a light gig. The horse slid to a halt, rearing up onits hind legs, the little cart lurching to one side. It lifted offthe ground, teetering precariously on one wheel before bouncingback onto the cobblestones with a resounding thud.
Payne leaped into action. Dashing into thestreet, he ducked past a horse and rider and reached the girl asecond too late. She let out a startled shriek as the horse’shooves hovered above her head. One large hoof glanced off hershoulder. Her face twisted with pain and she crumpled into anunmoving heap on the dirty cobblestones. The cart driver swore,settled his upset horse and carried on without a backwardglance.
Payne scooped the unconscious girl into hisarms and made his way back to the walkway. Laying her down, heloosened the tie on her deep green cloak and stared at her insurprise. What on earth was Jasmine Ridgewood doing here? And whywas she running from a vendor? If she were to recognize him shewould blow his cover. He straightened his powdered wig and jammedthe hat lower on his head as the girl moaned. Her eyelids flutteredopen as the angry vendor reached their side, having seen hisopportunity to confront the thief.
“I want that gurl arrested,” the man shouted.“She stole from me. Where’s a constable when ye need one?”
“I am Detective Smith,” Payne lied.
“Oh. Good! I want ’er arrested,” the manrepeated somewhat calmer.
“I will take care of it, my fine man.” Hepassed the merchant a shilling to pay for the stolen pastry. “Ihope this will cover your losses.”
“That’s right generous of ye, gov’nor,” thesweaty vender replied obviously very pleased to get far more forhis baked goods than they were worth.
Payne looked around as the vendor headed backto his pastry cart. No one appeared to be paying him or the limpwoman any attention. The girl moaned and he turned his attentionback to her. Blinking, she stared up at him in confusion, herbrilliant green orbs searching his face. A light spattering offreckles across the bridge of her nose stood out against her paleface.
“Are you all right?”
The girl sat up wincing. Rubbing her shouldershe gave him a weak smile. “I think so, although my shoulder isterribly sore.”
“Are you sure nothing is broken?” Paynehelped her to her feet, relieved the color was starting to returnto her face. A shrill yelp cut off her answer. He looked downstartled. The girl’s cloak was moving!
She opened her outer garment and patted afuzzy white bundle concealed within. “I am sorry, Lord Chancy,” shecrooned. “Are you all right?”
“What the devil is that?”
“He is my dog, Lord Chancy.” The girl duginto her pocket and pulled out a rather mashed looking sausagepastry. “I am afraid your dinner is a little flat,” she told thedog.
Payne shook his head. The girl was clearlydaft. Why else would she talk to the dog as if it were a person?Maybe she was not the answer to his problem after all.
The girl’s gaze darted up and down thestreet. “I had better go.”
“It is all right. I paid the vendor for thepastry.”
“Thank you, sir.” Relief softened herfeatures. “If you will just tell me your name I will ensure you arereimbursed as soon as I can find suitable employment.”
“There is no need as it was such a small sum.My name is Smith. Can I escort you home?”
“No thank you, Mr. Smith. Lord Chancy and Ishall be fine.”
“And your name would be?” Smith shiftedimpatient to be on his way as the cold rain trickled in the collarof his coat and down his neck.
“Jasmine, Jasmine Brown.” She avoided hisgaze, looking down at the dog and stroking his head.
“Brown? That is a very common name.” Hefrowned. Why had she given a false name? With those flame redtresses there was no doubt she was Jasmine Ridgewood. Why was agirl as wealthy as she stealing pastries from a street vendor?Perhaps the rumors were true and she really had run away from home.It would seem reasonable to expect she would have taken enoughmoney to buy the things she might need when living on her own.
Jasmine tucked her furry bundle under her armand began to move away. He caught her arm. “Are you sure I cannotescort you and Lord Chancy home? I would feel much better if I knewyou had arrived at your destination safe and sound,” hepersisted.
“There is no danger out here in broaddaylight,” she insisted.
He gave her a bemused smile. “You could havefooled me.”
Jasmine gave him a brief smile. “No, thankyou. As I have already said I am fine. Thank you again for yourkindness. Good day.” With that she turned on her heel and hurriedoff down the walk.
He watched her until she turned the cornerand then scanned the street. Making sure no one was payingattention he followed. Rounding the corner he was just in time tosee the flash of her green cloak as she ducked into an alley. Thegirl made her way among the maze of alleys like she knew them well.Finally she paused at the door to a long since abandoned warehouse.He ducked behind a crate as she looked both ways. What was she upto? He waited a second and peered around the edge of the crate. Sheslid aside a couple of loose boards at the bottom of the door andexposed a large opening. With one last quick peek over her shouldershe disappeared from sight into the building. He waited a fewminutes and when she did not re-emerge he followed her.
 
 
* * *
 
 
Jasmine scrambled through the hole and gropedher way along the dark corridor to the cold abandoned office. Onceinside the room she struck the flint and lit the lamp sitting onthe dusty lopsided desk. Little gray mice squeaked and scurriedacross the dirty floor in all directions causing Lord Chancy tobark and wiggle with excitement in her arms.
“Shhh, Chancy. It is just mice. I do not likethem either.” Scratching the little dog’s ears to soothe him shewaited until all the mice had gone before putting him down on thefloor. Breaking the crushed pastry in half she gave the smallerpiece to the dog and munched on the other. It is most assuredlynot a seven course meal but it is better than nothing. The dogfinished his morsel, his pink tongue passing over his lips as hewagged his tail. She smiled at him and finished her mouthfullicking each finger thoroughly. So much for table manners she musedwith a giggle.
“It is not much of a meal, Chancy, but it isthe best I could do today.” Her own stomach growled in complaint asshe walked to the corner and kicked off her muddy shoes. Afterremoving her cloak she placed both items by her bed, whichconsisted of a pile of straw and a brown woolen blanket. With asigh she sat on the blanket. The little dog followed, plopping downin her lap. She stroked his fluffy white ears. Yes, this place wasa far cry from her luxurious pink and cream room at the Ridgewoodtownhouse. There was no fancy pale rose and ivory striped paper onthe rough lumber walls, no soft down mattress on an elegant carvedsleigh bed. She shivered, no warm goose down filled bed covers orpuffy pillows on which to lay her weary head here. Just a moldysmelling pile of straw, pieces of which always seemed to work theirway through the coarse blanket and poke her sides as she slept.
“It will get better. As soon as I find a jobwe will have food to eat and a real bed to sleep in,” she promisedthe dog. He wagged his tail as if in agreement.
Brushing at the manure stain on her skirtwhere she had fallen earlier she wondered how much longer she couldgo on like this. Is living like this worth not having to faceFather’s life of deception? It is definitely worth not having tomarry Squire Cartland. She sneezed. The prospect of having togo back out in the rain was daunting, but she should get some waterto clean herself and her clothes. The idea of bathing in cold watermade her shiver. What she would not give for a warm fire, soft bedand a hot bath right now. A fire in the rusty old iron potbelliedstove would be nice too, but coal was expensive and she had notmanaged to find the key to her father’s safe before she left. Shedeparted the townhouse with just the few shillings left from herlast shopping expedition jingling in her pocket. The dog’s headsnapped up and he growled, staring at the doorway.
“What is it, Chancy?” Jasmine looked at thedoor she had left ajar. Pulling a small dagger from the sheath ather waist she held it out in front of her and listened. The onlysound was the rain beating a steady percussion on the roof of thederelict building.
“It is just mice, Chancy.” With a sigh sheplaced the knife beside her on the floor. “I am far too cold tobathe. We might as well get some sleep. We can go out later once itstops raining and look for more food.”
She eased the dog off her lap and rolled upin the rough blanket. The dog growled again.
“Shhh, Chancy. Go to sleep.” The dog whinedand stood. “I will leave the lantern lit so the mice will stayaway. Now go to sleep.” Jasmine closed her eyes and tried to makeherself more comfortable.
A man’s low voice rumbled from the doorway.“A mere light will not keep the lechers and thieves away.”
She scrambled to her feet, throwing theblanket aside as she rose. Snatching up her knife she took up adefensive position. Chancy backed up against her legs growlinglouder.
Smith stepped into the room. “I am sorry. Idid not mean to frighten you so.”
Jasmine glared at him. “What are you doinghere?”
“I followed you.”
“That is apparent. Why? What do you want?”When Smith continued his slow approach she slashed at him with herweapon. “Stop right there, or I will slit your breadbasket wideopen.” She fixed him with a vicious scowl, trying not to show howterrified she was of the man’s intentions. He stopped by thelantern and held up his hands to show he was unarmed. She foughtthe urge to laugh at his old-fashioned powdered wig tied neatlywith a frivolous purple bow. No one she knew would be caught deadin a wig anymore. A black patch covered one eye; the other was redand runny looking. His whiskered face was layered in thick powder,which gave him a sickly look. He favored her with what she supposedmust pass for a friendly smile, showing a surprisingly nice set offront teeth. He certainly is an odd looking creature...
“What do you want?” she repeated.
“I came to offer you my assistance.” Thestooped-shouldered man lowered his black gloved hands.
Her disdainful gaze traveled down his cheapbrown coat and trousers to his worn but sturdy boots. “What kind ofassistance could you possibly offer me?”
“The protection of a great house.”
Jasmine snickered. “You do not look like alord. What kind of house, a brothel?”
“My employer has a large house here inLondon. You are welcome to come and stay there. It would be muchsafer.”
Sure. She rolled her eyes. “And whatwould your employer ask for in return?”
The man hesitated for a moment. “He has ayoung niece that requires tending. You would be a companion ofsorts.”
Jasmine thought about it for a moment. Awarm bed would be nice. A hot meal or two. “Can Lord Chancycome too?”
The man’s lips twitched up into a crookedgrin. “I do not see why not.”
Jasmine reached down, keeping her knife handoutstretched and her eye on Smith. She scooped the little dog up.Could she trust the man, or despite his claims, did he mean herharm? She weighed the situation carefully in her mind. Should Igo with the stranger? Can he really offer a warm, safe bed? If Idecline his invitation, and stay here in the cold and damp, will hecome back when I am fast asleep and do me harm? Her teeth beganto chatter reminding her of how cold and damp it was in the rundownbuilding. “All right, where is this employer of yours?”
“He is but a short hack ride away.”
Jasmine gestured toward the door with herknife. “You first.” She was not about to turn her back on the man.If there was one thing she had learned in the last couple of weeksliving on the streets it was that no one’s motives could betrusted. The lesson was hard learned when a small peasant boyoffered to help her across a puddle and in the process snatched herparasol and ran away. Her only consolation was the fact the scrawnychild looked as if the money fetched from the sale of the itemwould buy him a few decent meals he could surely use.
Instead of leaving the man stood unmoving andgave her a curious look. “What about your possessions?”
Jasmine looked with dismay at the largecarpetbag under the table. How can I carry my belongings, LordChancy and the knife? She considered putting her knife back inthe sheath at her waist, but she didn’t trust the strange-lookingman. I suppose I will have to leave all my things here. Mayhap Iwill be able to come back for them at some later date if they havenot been stolen in the meantime. As if sensing her thoughts,Smith spoke.
“I could carry your belongings.” When shecast him a suspicious look he chuckled. “Or you could put away theknife.”
She frowned. “Take the bag, but I am watchingyou, so do not even think about trying to run off with it,” shewarned trying her best to look threatening.
Smith grinned. “Nothing could possibly befurther from my thoughts. I assure you I have no use for petticoatsand frills.” He picked up the bag with a twinkle in his eye andwalked out the door.
Jasmine made a face at his retreating backand slipped on her shoes. Stuffy old fop. She snuffed outthe lantern and followed him to the hole in the outer door. Whenshe crawled through and stood up on the other side she found Smithalready striding down the alley. “Wait!” she called. Smith slowedhis pace, but did not look back. Blast the man! What does hetake me for, a race horse? For an old man he can surely walkfast. Gathering her skirts in her knife hand she shifted thedog’s weight and jogged to catch up.
She was puffing by the time they came outonto the street and he paused to hail a passing hansom cab. Thehorses barely came to a halt before he opened the door and tossedher bag in like a sack of fodder. Standing back he motioned for herto climb in. Giving him a look of warning she placed the dagger inthe sheath at her waist and reached for the handrail. Her footslipped on the wet step as she tried to manage the dog and herskirts at the same time. She stiffened when a firm hand cupped herbottom. “See here!” A squeal slipped from her lips as she wasunceremoniously propelled into the carriage. “How inappropriate,”she fumed, scrambling to take the forward facing seat.
Smith climbed in after her ignoring herprotest and gave the driver the address of his employer asTwenty-One Park Lane.
Jasmine looked at Smith in astonishment, hisindiscretion being forgotten for the moment. Park Lane. Hisemployer must be a man of considerable wealth. That is by far themost sought after area in all London. Only the richest of the tonlive there. “Just who is this employer of yours?”
“The Duke of Ryland,” Smith replied witharrogant nonchalance unbefitting a servant.
It was as if someone dropped a beam on herchest, the crushing sensation making it hard to breathe. She gaspedand then clapped her hand over her mouth at the unladylikegesture.
Smith looked closer at her. “Is something thematter?”
Jasmine shook her head, and turned in herseat to look out the window. You have really done it this time.Of all the people to find me, this man has to work for the Duke ofRyland. The duke is right up there on my list of persons I have nowish to see, let alone work for. Now I am running away from oneproblem straight into a bigger problem. A much bigger one. What doI do now? Why didn't I ask who his employer is before I got intothe coach? Am I ever going to learn to look before I leap intothings?
The coach pulled up at the crested gates ofthe Ryland mansion. Jasmine shuddered as she looked out herrain-washed window at the scowling stone lions guarding theentrance. They seemed to stare at her with their colorless eyes,looking especially eerie in the fading light. It was as if theywhispered we know who you are with the steady pitter patterof the rain which was beginning to fall ominously harder. She wasabout to step into the lion’s den. If she were quick about it,maybe she could make a run for it before the duke had a chance todevour her!
Smith fished a coin out of his pocket andleaped out to pay the driver. Jasmine stayed where she was. Hereached back in and hoisted her bag out of the cab to his shoulder.“Are you going to run screaming down the street or are you comingin?”
Did the man know what she was thinking or hadher expression somehow betrayed her? Jasmine twisted her skirt inher fingers, looked at him and then past him at the scowling lions. Will I eat tonight or be eaten?
Smith fixed her with a sour look. “Come on.It is wet out here in case you have not noticed.”
Jasmine returned her gaze to him. If she madea break for it Smith would have the last of her worldlypossessions. On the other hand, what were a few trinkets andclothes compared to the duke’s wrath if he recognized her? Smithcleared his throat. “See here, if you would rather take yourchances on the street that is not my concern. However my employerhas entrusted me to find him a chaperone for his niece and I wouldhate to think I spent all afternoon out in the rain fornaught.”
His plight sparked her sympathy. It did lookas if he had spent the whole day out in the rain. The plain clotheshe wore were soaked through and water dripped from his wig. Hewould probably catch his death of cold. She could not very wellabandon the fellow to face the duke empty-handed. And what wouldhappen to the duke’s poor unfortunate niece? One could not in allgood conscience leave the girl alone in a big empty house with noone to befriend her.
She rubbed her sore shoulder. A soft bed anda hot bath would feel good after a fortnight of sleeping on a harddirty floor. Perhaps the duke wouldn’t recognize her; after allthey had not seen each other in many years. And if he did, what wasthe worst that could happen? He might recognize her and inform herfather of her whereabouts. She could always throw herself upon theduke’s mercy and try to convince him to keep her presence a secret.If in fact the man could muster any mercy for the daughter of hisenemy. Jasmine frowned as Smith stalked up the walkway and took thesteps to the front door two at a time in a way suited to a muchyounger man. Should she take a chance and hope the duke didn’trecognize her?
The poorly dressed hackney driver leaned overand gave her with a lewd smile. “Are ye going, Miss? Or did ye havesomething else in mind?”
Jasmine scrambled fromthe coach and hurried up the walk after Smith, the driver’s crudelaughter ringing in her ears. She would rather take her chanceswith the duke than trust the hackney driver to deposit her safelysomewhere else. Besides, Smith still had her bag of belongings.Instead of knocking, Smith shocked her by opening the front doorand walking in like he owned the place. He did not even glance backto see if she followed. She hurried to catch up before he shut thedoor.
“James!” Smith called when she entered thegold and deep green foyer on his heels.
A butler appeared as if by magic. The man wasclad in colors matching the entryway. Where he came from Jasminecould not have said.
“Yes, Your...” the man stopped, eyed hercarefully before continuing, “...sir. Nice to see you looking—ah,well, wet, Mr. Smith.”
“Rather.” Smith's dry reply and sullen lookmade the butler blanch. He did not bother to turn around as heintroduced her, but inclined his head in her direction instead.“This is Jasmine Brown. She is here to see the duke about thecompanion job.”
“Oh.” A look of confusion clouded thebutler’s profile for a moment, before he pasted a discreet smile onhis face. “Very good then, sir. Shall I put her in the parlor towait while I summon him?”
“That will be fine.” Smith strode off downthe hall without a backward glance.
Jasmine stared at his retreating back. Hedid not even say goodbye. How rude. The duke must be a man who doesnot stand on principle, or manners for that matter. It appears hisservants enter by the front door without knocking as if it werethey who owned the house. And whoever heard of a butler who askedanother servant where to put a guest? This was a strangely runhouse indeed. “ Right this way, Miss.” The butler took her wetcloak seemingly unsurprised by the dog she held tucked under herarm and led her in the opposite direction across the spotlessgolden tiles. They followed a short bare hallway and the butleropened the door to the parlor. Stepping back he motioned for her toenter to have a seat in one of the priceless dark walnut chairs,giving her muddy skirts a rather disdainful look.
Jasmine sat on the chair finding it as hardand uncomfortable as it looked and perched the shivering dog on herlap.
“Could I take your ah, little friend to thekitchen for a bite to eat?” He nodded to Lord Chancy.
Jasmine put the dog down at her feet. “No,thank you. Lord Chancy is not very fond of strangers.”
The butler sniffed. “Lord Chancy? Interestingname for a dog.”
As if to prove her wrong Chancy wagged histail and trotted over to the butler. When the man leaned down toscratch his ears the dog rolled onto his back and presented hisunderside for a rub with a satisfied doggy grin. The butler gruntedand obliged.
Jasmine groaned. Trust Chancy to do the exactopposite of what he should or she expected.
The butler straightened with a small grin.“Very shy indeed.”
“Traitor,” Jasmine scolded the doghalf-heartedly. The dog sat up keeping his eyes on the butler, notpaying any attention to her whatsoever. “The duke should be withyou shortly. Come on, Lord Chancy.” The butler walked to the door.“Let us go see if cook can find you a nice juicy bone shallwe?”
The dog’s ears perked up when he heard theword bone and he trotted out the door with the butler, his nailsclicking on the tiles of the hallway.
Jasmine looked around the parlor. It wastidy, but not as fancy as one would have expected. There were nofeminine adornments strewn around the room or cluttering thetabletops. The furniture was expensive though plain, dust free,bland and sterile. A half-empty brandy decanter on the mantel wasthe only evidence the room was ever used. Jasmine glanced at thepainting hanging over the fireplace. It was an unimaginative piecedepicting an earth-colored bowl filled with faded looking fruit. His taste in art is certainly as stale as his sense ofdecorating. It was if he had not wanted any trace of his ownself to linger in the room. Strange, most people strive to makea room reflect their tastes, their personalities.
She stood and crossed to the fireplaceholding her cold hands out to the small fire crackling in thehearth, glad not be sleeping in the cold damp warehouse on a nightlike this. As if to emphasize her thoughts a large flash oflightning lit up the room, the following clap of thunder making herjump. She noticed the lamp on the table start to grow dimmer untilit finally fizzled and went out leaving her with only the meagerlight of the fire. That had to be an omen for things to come shethought with a yawn.
Sitting down on the carpet she leaned backagainst the side of the imposing stone fireplace basking in itswelcome warmth. When is the duke going to make his appearance?If I did not need this job so badly I would give him a piece of mymind for making me wait so long. It is the height of badmanners. Yawning again, she struggled to keep her eyes openeven though she wanted to give in to the warm and drowsy feelingsthat were slowly overcoming her. Just for a minute I will restmy eyes...
As she began to drift off to sleep, the roomlit up with another flash of lightning, the windows rattling fromthe immediate rumble of thunder which followed. Startled, sheopened her eyes, blinking, confused for a moment by the unfamiliardécor. Her sleepy eyed gaze settled on a tall man framed in thedoorway with a lit candle in his hand. Jasmine’s heart leaped intoher throat and she scrambled to her feet.
He strolled across the carpet like asoundless silhouette, stopping in front of her as she shoved anerrant strand of damp hair behind her ear. Her face heated as hecontemplated her for a few minutes, saying nothing. Annoyanceflared in her breast. Is he going to say something or just standthere looking me over like he is pricing a horse at a livestocksale?
“Smith says you are here to apply for thecompanion job,” his soft words caused the flame of the candle heheld to flicker and dance.
Jasmine nodded, unable to form any coherentanswer. The man was dressed in immaculate style. His shortsandy-colored hair was combed and parted in the middle. Thickeyebrows wrinkled in a frown over his blue eyes. Her gaze traveleddown his straight aristocratic nose to his full lips mirroring thefrown lines on his brow. He was close enough she could smell thepiquant scent of his soap and detect the light tickle of his breathon her face. Blushing she looked down, avoiding his stern gaze. Thesnowy white cravat at his neck was well starched and tied as neatas could be under his freshly shaved jaw, almost, but not quitehiding his large Adam’s apple. He swallowed and she watched as itbobbed. The sudden urge to reach out and wrap her arms around hisneck was almost overpowering. What is wrong with me? The man hasbarely said two words and yet I am already picturing myself in ahighly indecent embrace! She pushed her errant strand of hairfurther behind her ear and shifted her weight. His white shirtseemed to float up and down against his broad flat chest as hebreathed. Her eyes traveled further down over his skin; tighttan-colored riding breeches stretched across his lean hips andmuscular thighs. The rest of his attire was as carefullymaintained, right down to the tips of his highly polished Hessianboots.
“Do you have any references?” he asked,drawing her attention back up to his face.
“No.” She had not thought about needingreferences. Her hopes of securing a job evaporated. No one wouldhire her without good references. Had she not seen her mother turnaway prospective maids for not having letters of reference frompast employers? Her shoulders drooped.
The duke’s eyes flickered. “Do you have anyexperience?”
“No, not with children.” Dejected she pivotedand moved in the direction of the door. “I can see I am wastingyour time so I will just collect my dog and be on my way.”
“I did not say my niece was a child and I didnot dismiss you. Sit down,” The commanding tone of his voice leftlittle room for protest. He pointed to one of the two plain chairsnearest fire. She walked over to the chair and perched on the edge.He followed, placing the candle on the table between them. With agrunt he sat in the opposite chair, leaned back and crossed hislegs. Folding his arms across his chest he regarded her in silence.She looked at the floor seeking to escape his unnerving stare. Does he recognize me? I never should have come.
“Are you married?”
Married? Is that a question relevant tothe position or curiosity on his part? “No.”
“Engaged?”
She shook her head.
“How old are you?”
“Almost two and twenty,” she answered stillfocused on the carpet.
Why was her marital status so important tohim? Did one have to be married in order to chaperone a small girl?She was embarrassed to admit she was well on her way to being anold maid. She glanced up at the duke. He did not seem shocked orconcerned.
“Where is your family from?”
“London.” The duke lifted an eyebrow like heexpected her to continue. “My father is a banker,” she lied, hopinghe would not ask for what bank her father worked. When the dukejust nodded relief flooded her with an almost heady sense ofsatisfaction. He obviously did not recognize her or feel the needto dispute her story. “Do you have any education?”
“I was educated at Madame Le Champlain’sschool for young ladies.” Too late she realized no banker’sdaughter could have possibly attended a school for upper classladies.
The duke’s upper lip twitched, however he didnot comment on her slip of tongue. She decided being a male heprobably did not know what class of girl went to Madame LeChamplain’s. Nevertheless, she must be more careful in the future.Too many slip-ups and he might start questioning who she reallywas.
The duke looked at her for a moment as ifthere were something else he wanted to ask before standing withoutwarning and heading for the door.
Jasmine’s heart sank. She was beingdismissed. Well, she better get used to sleeping in the cold,because without references, it was unlikely she would get any jobwhich would pay enough to rent decent lodgings. She got to her feetand trudged behind the duke to the doorway.
The duke paused on the threshold. “The jobpays ten shillings a month, a clothing allowance, plus room andboard.”
“You are offering me the position?” Jasminestared at him in stunned disbelief.
The duke’s gaze fixed on her filled withannoyance. “I do not see anyone else in the room do you?”
She shook her head and smiled with relief ashe stalked from the room. “Wait.”
He stopped, scowling over his shoulder ather. “Is there a problem?”
“No…yes. I mean it is about Lord Chancy…”
“Ah yes, your dog.” An amused look flittedacross his chiseled features. “I suppose he can stay. It will benice to have a dog around. I miss my hounds when I am inLondon.”
“Thank you.” Jasmine wondered how he knew thedog’s name. Trying hard not to show her delight at getting the jobshe followed him from the room.
“You will find cook’s domain that way.” Theduke pointed to a narrow hall to the left. “I imagine you arehungry after sharing your purloined snack with your dog. I expectyou have not eaten regularly as of late. Tell cook I said to fixyou something to eat and James will show you to your room.”
Without a backward glance he headed off downthe hall in the opposite direction Smith had taken.
Jasmine watched him go. How did the man knowthese things? Did the walls have ears?
Maybe Smith already told him everything. Itwould certainly account for his tardiness in meeting with her. Thatis it, she decided as she hurried to the kitchen. There was reallyno other possible explanation.
 
 
* * *
 
 
Payne closed the studydoor behind him with a decisive click, crossed to the desk andpoured himself a glass of brandy. He wandered over and sat in thechair nearest the fire. Running a hand through his damp hair hestared into the dancing orange flames.
Lady Ridgewood certainly had not thought outher story well. It was apparent she lied to him. Any fool knewMadame Le Champlain’s school was a finishing school for ladies ofthe upper crust. The question was why had she lied? Perhaps shethought he would find her without the skills to chaperone a younggirl, but more likely she was afraid he would recognize her. Hecould not help feeling it was the latter. She was hiding something.It was possible she was here to spy on him. Why else would she havetaken the job when she clearly recognized his name? She could notbe that desperate to get away from her father could she? It wouldpay to keep a close eye on her. He sighed remembering something hisfather used to say. “Keep your friends close and your enemies evencloser.” Jasmine Ridgewood certainly did not look like an enemy.No, in fact, even resembling a drowned rat, and smelling worse, hestill wanted to kiss her full trembling lips when she gazed up athim with parted lips and that sleepy look. He finished his drinkand rang for the butler. He had better find Lord Sefton and tellhim what he had done. Little over an hour later Payne saunteredinto White’s Mens Club trying to ignore the hostile looks some ofthe patrons gave him and headed for the card room in the back.There he found his friend, Lord Sefton the Earl of Avondale,imbibing Blue Ruin and wagering on a rowdy game of whist. Paynewatched for a moment as the silver-haired man placed his cards onthe table with a triumphant look.
“Whist.” He grinned when he noticed Payne andwinked.
Lord Smithers tossed his cards to the tablewith a snort of disgust. “You are luckier than the winner of a onehorse race.”
Sefton ignored him and turned to Payne.“Ryland. What brings you to the club tonight? Here to squander someof your blunt?”
“Actually, I came to see if you have lostyour entire fortune yet,” Payne jested.
Lord Sefton chuckled. “Not yet. I am up onehundred pounds in fact.”
The dealer gathered up the cards. “Two pointsto Lord Sefton.”
“Or more.” Sefton grinned, gathering up thepile of money on the table. “Lord Hazard, would you mind if youngWhitney here takes my place as your partner? It seems the duke isin need of my company for a moment.” The young viscount beside himlooked eager to join in. All parties at the table agreed and Seftonfollowed Payne into the much quieter refreshment room.
“So, how did your intelligence gathering gothis afternoon?” Sefton sat at a small corner table and gesturedfor Payne to join him, signaling a waiter to bring them somedrinks.
“Better than expected actually.” Seftonleaned closer and loosened his cravat. “Do tell.”
“Well, I went down to the Fox and the HoundInn to meet my informant. He did not tell me anything I did notalready know, unfortunately.” Payne paused as the waiter placed twoglasses of brandy in front of them on the table. Once the man wasout of earshot he continued.
“Anyway, I just left the inn when this girldarted out into the street. She was almost run over by a horse andcart.”
“Was she all right, or did you have to do alittle mouth to mouth to revive her?” Sefton smirked wrapping hislong pale fingers around the glass.
Payne laughed even though his face heatedlike an untried school boy’s. The thought of kissing her cherry redlips had been tempting. “How you ever managed to land a sweet ladylike Maria is beyond me. You really are a rake you know.”
“I know.” Sefton gave him a mischievous grin.“Alas, but I have been reformed, or so I have been told.”
Payne snorted. “Sure you have.” He continuedhis story. “The girl was unconscious, but otherwise all right. Soany guess as to who the girl was?”
“I cannot for the life of me fathom a guess.Who was she?”
“Jasmine Emily Ridgewood.”
Lord Sefton’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Areyou sure it was her?”
“Absolutely, I am without a doubt. Who couldforget that flame red hair of hers?” Hair, he himself, had neverbeen able to forget, and Lord knew he tried. “Indeed. Hair of thatparticular color is hard to forget.”
“It turns out she has run away, just as myinformant told me. She has been living in an old abandonedwarehouse on Bridge Street and stealing pastries of allthings.”
“Pastries?” Sefton lifted his glass to hislips with an amused expression.
“She was hungry.” Payne shrugged andcontinued, “According to my informant, Ridgewood insisted shebecome betrothed to a Squire Cartland.”
“You cannot be serious.” Sefton put his glassdown with a clatter and lowered his voice as a couple of nearbypatrons looked up in alarm. “Why would a man as rich as Ridgewoodwant his only daughter to wed an untitled squire? Especially onewith as questionable a background as Cartland?”
“My guess is this fellow Cartland hassomething to do with the stolen government documents that ended upin Napoleon’s hands. Ridgewood must have agreed to the marriageeither because he owed Cartland something, or to keep himquiet.”
Sefton shook his head. “That is apossibility, but why would the Ridgewood girl run away? I willadmit Cartland is a despicable weasel-faced scoundrel, neverthelessit seems pretty extreme to run away and live in a warehouse oversomething, that as a woman, she has no control over.”
“I do not know, however I mean to find out.”Payne took a good long drink from his glass, the warm brandysliding down his throat warming his chest.
“How do you plan on doing that?” Seftonleaned back in his chair, watching him.
“I hired her.” Payne locked eyes with himover the rim of his glass.
Sefton choked on his drink. The nearbypatrons looked over at them again. Payne nodded to them and thumpedSefton on the back with a grin. When the man once again gained hiscomposure Payne took another sip of his brandy.
“You hired her? What the devil as, yourinterior decorator?” Sefton asked with an astonished look on hisface.
“No. I hired her as a companion for myniece.”
Sefton frowned. “You do not have aniece.”
“That is a minor problem I thought you couldhelp me with.” Payne gave him sheepish look.
Sefton's eyes widened. “What do you expect meto do? Dress up as a girl? I am not sure I could stand one of thoserestricting whalebone corsets they wear.”
Payne laughed at the image of Lord Sefton ina corset, “It was the first thing that came to mind I feltreasonably sure she would accept.”
Sefton shook his head and sighed. “Where isthe girl now?”
“She is at my townhouse.” Payne grimaced.
“Bloody hell!” He picked up his glass anddowned the contents. “You mean she actually took the job knowingwho you were?”
“That is the thing. I do not think she knowsI recognized her. She told me her name was Jasmine Brown, said shewas the daughter of a banker. I suppose she must have thought Iwould not remember her. I played along, pretending I did not knowher.”
“Clever, except for the niece thing, thatis,” Sefton grumbled.
Payne put down his glass. “So, what do I donow?”
“Tell her you lied and hope she does not puta fireplace poker through your head?” Sefton gave him a sympatheticgrin.
“You would love that wouldn’t you?” Paynegroaned.
“No, then who would I have to entertain meand make me look wise?” Sefton grinned, his eyes twinkling with hisusual good-natured humor.
“True.” Payne returned the grin. He alwaysfelt better when he could discuss things with the older man who hadbeen a good friend to his father. When the former Duke of Rylanddied in prison, just days after being accused of treason andmurder, the marquis stood beside him despite the terrible scandal.Payne would always be grateful for that much needed support.
“Hmm. Let me think.” Sefton drummed hisfingertips on the table top in thought.
Payne finished his drink and scanned theclub. If it were not for Lord Sefton’s patronage and friendship hewould not even be allowed in the door of the prestigious men’sclub. He ignored a condemning look from one drunken patron andsighed. He wasn’t accepted, just merely tolerated.
Sefton snapped his fingers, drawing Payne'sattention back to him. “I have got it. Maria has a poor relation inthe country who has been asking to have her daughter sponsored fora London season. Of course, the girl does not have the blunt toafford a season, let alone an attractive enough dowry to interestone of the ton. What say you sponsor the girl? I will happily putup a dowry just to get Maria and the girl’s mother off my back,” heoffered.
“Wouldn’t that look strange? I mean, abachelor with my reputation sponsoring a young girl’s season?” Healready regretted having one female in his house and did not likethe idea of having two of the simpering creatures. A man’s homeis supposed to be his retreat from everyday stress not thecause of it.
“You could always take in some street rat.”Sefton smirked.
Payne held up his hand. “All right, allright. I suppose the country mouse will have to do.”
“We could say she is your only livingrelative a few times removed or some such drivel.”
“That sounds like a story the ton might gofor, but what about the girl’s mother?”
Sefton snorted. “I will bet my new team ofmatched grays she will love the idea. Besides with a chaperone howcan she object? The harpy is obsessed with her only daughter‘climbing the social ladder.’ With a duke as a sponsor she couldnot ask for a better boost up the rungs.”
“Great.” Payne gave him a glum look. “Let ushope the girl does not set her sights on me.”
Sefton roared with laughter and clapped hisfriend on the back. “You will have to get married some time. I willsend for the girl first thing tomorrow. I am sure I can get herhere by the end of the week.”
Payne ordered another round of drinks and satback in his chair. Perhaps this is turning out to be a good dayafter all.
 
 
Chapter Two
 
 
Jasmine awoke the next morning stiff andsore. The birds chirping outside her second floor window was enoughevidence the violent storm from last evening had abated.
She yawned and stretched. Reluctant to getout of the fluffy warm bed covers she lay looking up at theceiling. So far Payne had not guessed who she was. All she neededto do was keep a low profile. That should be easy enough. With herposition as companion to his niece she would be occupied withshopping, dance steps and chaperoning at-home teas.
Jasmine sat up abruptly. At-home teas! She had not thought about that. What if someone who came to call onthe duke recognized her? Once again, she had not thought it throughbefore she accepted the position. Flipping off the covers, sheswung her legs over the edge of the bed. Hopefully she had a fewdays to find another position before the duke entertained anyvisitors.
She looked around the room. It was more whatone would expect of a lady’s room than a one suitable for aservant. The fire burning cheerfully in the hearth the night beforewas now just a few glowing embers. The room was furnished inclassic gothic style, with sturdy solid oak furniture. There wereno cozy colorful rugs to adorn the polished wooden floor. It was asplain and sterile as the duke’s study. The white drapes were thickto block out any unwanted sun but unadorned by ruffles or lace.Even the bed covers were a plain but serviceable yellow satin. Itwas as if the designer did not care about the personality of theinhabitants, either that or whoever it was tried to obliterate anytrace of the past occupants.
She reached for the dressing gown she left onthe chair beside the bed the night before only to find it gone. Thechair was bare. She climbed off the bed and went to the dressingtable, sure she had left her carpetbag on the floor beside thetable, but it too was gone. Her brushes, combs, bath crystals,perfume and jewelry case, however, were arranged in neat order ontop. Someone had unpacked for her. She spotted an oriental dressingscreen reflected in the mirror conspicuously out of place in theplain room and turned around. Her pink satin dress hung over thetop.
Upon closer inspection she found it to befreshly laundered. Her undergarments and stockings hung beside it.Apparently, being a paid companion was one of the more lucrativepositions one could be employed in. She had never had need of one,because up until last winter, there had always been her mother tofill the role.
Jasmine slipped behind the screen andstripped off the borrowed nightdress. One of the parlor maids hadbeen nice enough to lend her a clean flannel one for the night. Aknock on the door interrupted her.
“Yes? Who is it?” she called from behind thescreen. The door opened with a creak and footsteps cross theroom.
“It is your maid, Mary, Miss. I have come tohelp you dress and tell you breakfast awaits downstairs in thefamily dining room.”
Jasmine smiled and peered over the screen atthe girl. Mary was a tiny little thing with curly hair as red asher own peeking out from under a crooked mobcap. The girl gave hera shy smile and Jasmine giggled. It seemed she was high enoughranked in the house to rate her own servant. She had not knownhired companions rated servants of their own.
She gave the maid a friendly smile. “I am soglad to see you. I was not sure how I was going to lace up my owncorset.”
The young girl smiled back at her and hurriedaround to help her dress. Jasmine slipped on the cleanundergarments the maid handed her and waited as the girl laced upher corset.
“If you do not mind me saying so, Miss, youcertainly do not need a corset with a waist as tiny as yours.”
“Thank you, Mary. Unfortunately it iscustomary. I really do not like them either, that is why I use sucha soft one. I never have my maid do it up very tight.”
Once the maid finished lacing and tighteningthe corset she slipped the pink silk dress over Jasmine’s head andfastened the row of tiny buttons down the back. Then, she hurriedto the wardrobe on the other side of the room and producedJasmine’s soft pink slippers.
“The rest of your clothes will be returned toyou as soon as they are washed. The yellow muslin you woreyesterday however is beyond repair. I could not get the stainout.”
Jasmine sighed. “That is of no great concern.It was not my favorite anyway. As you must agree yellow does notexactly look flattering on those of us with red hair.” Jasminegrinned at the maid.
Mary giggled. “I will show you to the diningroom, if you are ready.”
Jasmine ran her brush through her unruly redcurls and then pinned them into a tidy bun on top of her head.

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