Between the Devil and Desire Page 1

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Prologue

From the Journal of Jack Dodger

When I was five years old, my mum sold me. I never held it against her; even at such a tender age I understood that hunger and fear could make a person do things he thought he’d never do. In my new circumstance, I quickly learned the devil wore gentlemen’s clothing, and I ran away, convinced I’d be better off on the streets than in an elegant house where fancy gents pretended respectability.

I was not long on my own when I fell in with a notorious den of child thieves, managed by a crafty old blighter who went by the name of Feagan. Under his tutelage I learned anything could be stolen—given the proper preparation. My own skills, my determination to succeed and thus to survive, were unmatched, and I soon rose in his esteem. He affectionately called me Dodger, and by the time I was eight, I found myself spending the better part of my evenings sitting in front of a coal fire with Feagan, smoking my clay pipe, drinking gin, and soaking in the rare bits of wisdom he shared with only a respected few.

But my palm constantly itched to hold more coins. One day a proper-looking gent offered me sixpence to lure a highborn family of three into an alley. I did it with false tears and the claim that my mum was dying. The man and his wife were promptly killed, but the boy escaped. Terrified by what I’d been party to, I was quick to chase after the lad, fearing the same fate as had befallen his parents awaited us. I followed him to another alley, where he collapsed, huddled, and cried. We didn’t have time for such nonsense. To my relief, he didn’t recognize me. The shock of it all, I supposed. I mucked up his clothes, his person, and convinced him I possessed the wherewithal to save him.

The boy’s name was Lucian, but that sounded too swell, so I introduced him as Luke. Feagan handed me threepence for bringing in a new recruit. Not a bad tally for the day, even if it meant I didn’t sleep well that night.

To my everlasting irritation, although I was only two years older, I felt responsible for the lad. When he was caught stealing, I stupidly thought to rescue him. We spent three months in prison. The prison brand that marked us served to strengthen our friendship, and we became insparable.

Until the night he killed a man.

He was fourteen, awaiting trial, when the Earl of Claybourne declared Luke was his long-lost grandson. He was released into the old gent’s care. Luke’s good fortune quickly became mine. The old gent took me in as well. We were constantly at odds. He worked diligently to transform me into a gentleman, but I preferred to remain a scoundrel. It seemed a more honest way to go.

When I was nineteen, a solicitor informed me that I had an anonymous benefactor who had grand expectations where I was concerned and wished to bestow upon me ten thousand pounds so my future might be assured. I never questioned who my benefactor was, because I had no doubt he was Luke’s grandfather—seeking to rid himself of me without disappointing his grandson. I had lived on the streets long enough to know money was to be made investing in vice. I purchased a building and transformed it into an exclusive gentlemen’s club.

And so it was that I became a man of means, far exceeding what I was certain my benefactor—or anyone else, for that matter—had expected of me. But no matter how much money I earned, it was never enough. I was always hungry for the next coin. I would do anything, anything at all, to possess it.

Chapter 1

London

1851

The devil had come to call. Sitting beside him in her library, Olivia Stanford, the Duchess of Lovingdon, didn’t know whether to be appalled or fascinated. He was an interesting creature, and while she’d heard many of the sordid tales regarding him, she’d never actually set eyes on him before that night.

His black, unruly hair, curling teasingly across his broad shoulders, spoke of a desire to rebel against societal constraints. The harsh lines of his face had been carved by a life of decadence, misbehavior, and excess. Yet, he was beautiful in a rugged sort of way, like the manner in which a jagged coastline at dawn could steal one’s breath with its magnificence.

She lowered her gaze from a profile that had held her enthralled from the moment she’d walked into her library and met the deliciously wicked Jack Dodger.

His gambling den provided entertainment for many men of the aristocracy. Sisters, wives, mothers heard slurred references to the debauchery that occurred within Jack Dodger’s domain when their brothers, husbands, sons returned home in the early hours, three sheets in the wind. The women, of course, discreetly exchanged stories over tea, and so Dodger’s reputation, as well as that of his establishment, had grown among proper ladies who weren’t supposed to know about such improper things. Women detested his existence and the opportunity he provided for the men in their lives to stray from all that was good and respectable, yet none could deny their ceaseless fascination with a man so devoted to sin.

Sitting near him, Olivia became increasingly aware of the raw sexuality emanating from him. She imagined women followed him into his bedchamber without a single word being uttered. She could smell the tobacco and whiskey fragrance that permeated him and, to her everlasting shame, found herself relishing the darkly masculine scent. Everything about him spoke of forbidden indulgences.

He was truly the work of the devil.

He even carried the devil’s mark. The brand was clearly visible on the inside of his right thumb, because he didn’t possess the good manners to wear gloves and his long fingers were splayed across the arm of the chair. While marking criminals was no longer a practice, Olivia knew what the T burned into his flesh signified: he’d spent time in prison for thievery. She had little tolerance for those who took what did not rightfully belong to them.

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