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From the Journal of Frannie Darling
My earliest memory is of Feagan saying, with his heavy cockney accent, “Frannie darling, come sit on me lap.”
To him, I was always “Frannie darling.” “Frannie darling, fetch me gin.” “Frannie darling, rub me aching feet.” “Frannie darling, let me tell you a story.”
And so it was that when anyone asked me my name, I would say it was Frannie Darling.
I lived in a single room with Feagan and his notorious band of children who were known for their thieving ways. I cannot remember a time when Feagan was not in my life. Sometimes I imagined he was my true father. His hair was as bright a red and as uncontrollable as mine. But he never claimed me as his daughter. I was always simply one of his kids. The one who sat on his lap and helped him count the handkerchiefs and coins that the others brought in.
I was the one who carefully removed from the silk the thread that formed the monograms. I learned many of my letters from this tedious task because the intricate swirls fascinated me, and I’d always ask Feagan what they meant before I began working to erase all evidence they’d ever existed. Looking back on that time, I am often astonished to realize that a bit of cloth held such value. And yet it did.
I think Feagan may have been a teacher in an earlier life. In a school where he taught letters and numbers and was admired by his students. Or perhaps it was simply that, if he was my father, I wanted him to be more than a criminal.
He never spoke of his past, and I never asked him about mine.
I simply accepted my life in the dreary rookeries as my due. Feagan’s lads always treated me as though I were special. Perhaps because instinctively I mothered the lot of them. I mended their clothes. I snuggled against them when I went to sleep at night. As I grew older, I cooked their meals and tended their hurts. And sometimes I helped them to steal.
But none of this prepared me for the horror or the fear that gripped me when I was abducted and sold to a brothel at the age of twelve. Luke and Jack—the eldest of Feagan’s lads at the time—rescued me from the waking nightmare.
But not soon enough. Luke killed the man who so cruelly stole my innocence.
While awaiting trial, he was visited by the man’s father—the Earl of Claybourne. In Luke, Claybourne saw his long lost grandson and our lives took a drastic turn. The Crown forgave Luke his sins and returned him to his grandfather’s keeping. The earl made a place for me as well.
He was determined to give us advantages we’d never had. When he hired tutors, I was quick to learn how to read and write and master calculations more intricate than I’d ever encountered. I learned etiquette and proper comportment. But I was never comfortable in the great house in St. James.
And as Luke began to move into the world of an aristocrat, so I began to become awkward around him. I was much more at ease with Jack. When fortune smiled on him and he opened a gentlemen’s club, he offered to pay me a very handsome salary to keep his books. I thanked the earl for all he’d done for me. I acknowledged that my life was richer because of his efforts and interest in my welfare, but it was with a measure of relief that I walked away from the residence in St. James.
Deep down, I knew it was far better than I deserved. I was not of the aristocracy and a place among them was rarely gained through effort or accomplishment. It was usually determined by bloodline, and I had no doubt that mine was tainted beyond all imagining. I was glad I no longer had to bear their stares, their gossip, or their whispered speculations.
I convinced myself that my happiness was dependent upon never again associating intimately with the lords and ladies of the aristocracy.
So I banished them from my life. I worked very hard to create a safe haven where I was happy and content. I knew what I possessed was exactly what I wanted, that I desired no more than what I had.
And then he strode into my safe, little world…and once again, it became a very dangerous place indeed.
Sterling Mabry, the eighth Duke of Greystone, wasn’t certain why he took such notice of her.
Later, he would reflect on the moment and wonder if it was the vibrant red of her hair that had first captured his attention. Or perhaps it was the fact that she had stood beside his sister, Catherine, at the altar while she married Lucian Langdon, the Earl of Claybourne. Or maybe it was the way—during the reception held at his newly acquired brother-in-law’s residence—that three men migrated toward her, circled around her, each in his own way claiming his territory, much in the same manner as Sterling had witnessed lions in Africa behaving. He was surprised none of them roared.
Standing by the window in the drawing room, holding his flute of champagne, waiting to make the obligatory toast so he could go the hell home, Sterling watched the almost shy smile she gave each of the men, the way she spoke with a slight inclining of her head as though imparting a scandalous secret, and he longed to know what it was. She was much too far away for him to hear her voice, yet he imagined it carried the sweet dulcet tone of an angel—or perhaps she offered the wicked song of a siren, because it was apparent each man stood as mesmerized by her mere presence as he.
Obviously, they shared something exceedingly special. Even from this distance, he could see the affection she held for each of the men mirrored on her lovely expressive face. He wondered if at one time or another she had been lover to each of them, for there was a familiarity between them that went far deeper than friendship.
The three men were of little interest to him, except as to how they might view their role in her life. The first he knew well enough. Jack Dodger, owner of the notorious gentlemen’s club that Sterling frequently visited since his return to London. The second, taller and broader than the others, wasn’t someone Sterling wished to meet alone in an alley at night—or even during the day, for that matter. The third gentleman was William Graves, the physician Claybourne had sent for when Catherine swooned during their father’s recent wake.