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His Wicked Heart(3)

By:Darcy Burke

“As it happens, Mae is returning to her role tomorrow night, so my temporary run as an actress is at an end.” As was her run as one of the company seamstresses. Mr. Colman, the theatre manager, had sacked her just that evening. He’d hired a new costumer, and her services were no longer required. But these were personal troubles she never shared with anyone.

Tilly plucked at her bodice to reveal a bit more flesh. “Well, that must make you happy then.”

It was true Olivia didn’t care to act, but any extra money earned could be put toward opening her own dress shop. “It’s just as well. I’m afraid I wasn’t any good at it.”

“Pah, you’re always too hard on yourself, Livvie. You know you could make twice or three times as much as any of us.” She gestured toward Portia’s Garden.

Olivia arched a brow. “I thought we were discussing acting.”

Tilly patted her upswept hair. “I’d rather talk about that gent.” She cocked her head to the side and regarded Olivia with a suspicious gaze. “You’d tell me if you’d made an assignation with him, wouldn’t you? I’d be happy to give you a bit of tutoring before you shag him.”

“There’s nothing going on. He gave me his card, but I’ve no intention of contacting him.”

Tilly’s lips curled up into a wide smile. “But you pocketed it just the same. Let me know when you change your mind, dearie. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

“Oh, Tilly, you’re incessant. Good night.” She turned and entered the boarding house.

The windowless entry, lit by a single guttering candle in a sconce on the wall, was empty. The stairwell was blister-hot as Olivia climbed toward the topmost floor. She stopped short as she approached the second landing.

Mrs. Reddy, her landlady, leaned against the wall, a cup clutched in her left hand. “’Bout time you showed up, Livvie.”

Olivia forced a smile, albeit not a very friendly one. It had been an awfully long day, and Mrs. Reddy was a handful at the best of times. This didn’t look to be one of them. “Good evening to you, too.”

Mrs. Reddy pursed her thin lips, eyeing Olivia’s cloak as if it were lined with coin. “I need yer rent.”

Olivia refused to be bullied, especially when her feet were throbbing and she was sweating through her gown. “I paid you for the week only three days ago.”

Mrs. Reddy’s tone escalated to a childish whine. “But I need a spot of blunt now.”

Sympathy was not something Olivia would extend to the gin-addled woman. Not when she would just use the money for drink. It reminded Olivia far too much of her mother’s penchant for spending nearly everything she earned on clothes and worthless jewels. “I don’t have it. I’ll pay when it’s due.”

Mrs. Reddy wobbled forward, coming dangerously close to the top of the stairs. Afraid the woman might tumble over, Olivia moved up to the landing. She was relieved when Mrs. Reddy turned and stepped away from the edge.

“Livvie, I know you have some.”

A very little, but it was her hard-earned savings, scrimped from a tight budget that allowed no room for extravagance or error. Money she needed for her future. “I have none to spare.”

Mrs. Reddy advanced on her, wheezing gin-saturated breath. “I already have another tenant lined up. Go get the money, or I’ll toss you out.”

She had no idea if the landlady had another tenant, but she couldn’t risk that chance. Shooting Mrs. Reddy a disgruntled stare, she turned and started up the stairs.

“And it just went up another shilling!” she called after her.

Olivia paused and turned. “Again? You only raised the rent week before last.” Any higher and she’d have to move. Olivia dreaded the idea of looking for new lodgings. She could barely afford the tiny attic room at Mrs. Reddy’s. She’d be hard-pressed to find another in this part of town, and she refused to move east where rent was cheaper but the neighborhoods were much coarser.

Mrs. Reddy jabbed her cup forward, sloshing liquid onto the floor. “Rent’s payable when I say so and how much I say so.”

Olivia turned and gritted her teeth against correcting the woman’s speech. Fourteen years in a vicarage had ensured an excellent education, even if it was wasted in a career as a part-time seamstress.

Hopefully, she would be able to turn tomorrow’s dress delivery at Mrs. Johnson’s shop into a permanent assignment as a seamstress. Olivia had gone above and beyond what Mrs. Johnson had asked by embroidering the sleeves—a risky move, but one Olivia prayed would prove successful.

When she finally reached her room, Olivia unlocked her door and immediately bolted herself inside. Unbearably hot, she pulled off her cloak and tossed it on the bed. Lord Saxton’s card drifted to the floor. Olivia bent and picked it up. Even the paper felt rich.

If she accepted his offer, she could stop worrying about her next meal and concentrate on the dress shop. She might even be able to find better lodgings.

No. She couldn’t consider it. She couldn’t relinquish her dignity and her virtue the way her mother had.

She set the card on top of the dresser next to her bed, next to the small box painted with roses and vines that had belonged to her mother. Olivia opened the painted box and contemplated her woeful savings. She extracted the rent money and closed her fist around the precious coins. With heavy steps, she turned to deliver the funds to Mrs. Reddy, her mind frantically working as to how she would replace the loss. She simply had to find more sewing and embroidery work. She had to.

Chapter Two

JASPER STEPPED into the ring as the spectators all fell silent. He moved his gaze from the familiar gentleman and looked around the crowd. Not a single recognizable face. Good.

The other man in the ring—what was his name, Enders?—looked Jasper up and down. “Are you joking?”

Now this pup meant to insult him? Jasper’s blood boiled. “Not even a little bit.”

The gentleman came to the center. “Hold there, Saxton.”

Though Jasper couldn’t quite place him, he wasn’t surprised the man knew him. “Have we met?”

The gentleman’s mouth quirked. “Most certainly, though I daresay you wouldn’t admit it. I’m Sevrin.”

Jasper knew the name and the scandal, if not the man himself. The viscount was notorious for ruining a girl, his brother’s fiancée if he recalled correctly, and refusing to marry her. Ironically, he and Sevrin had more in common than the rakehell would ever know.

“Do you realize you’re auditioning for a fighting club?” Sevrin asked, his dark brow arched in suspicion.

Jasper possessed no such notion, but that wouldn’t stop him. Denied his original plan for the evening, the idea of pummeling someone beyond the rules and respectability of Jackson’s held an indefinable, and quite necessary, appeal. “Of course.”

Sevrin paused just briefly, reflecting a flash of surprise before he gave a slight nod. “All right then. Take off your hat and your coat. And whatever else you choose.” He gave a half-smile and returned to his spot on the perimeter.

Jasper stripped off his coat. He thrust it and his hat at a wrinkled old man. “Hold this.”

He turned back to face his opponent, Enders. The younger man had removed his coat and wore only a shirt, open at the neck. He’d rolled up his sleeves, revealing muscular forearms. Jasper discarded his waistcoat as well and then folded over his cuffs.

Wagers on Enders reached Jasper’s ears, stoking the fire in his belly. He curled his fists, eager to demonstrate his skill.

“Go,” called Sevrin.

Enders launched forward, fists flying. He moved differently than the men Jasper was used to sparring with at Jackson’s. He caught Jasper in the face, but Jasper moved quickly and deflected the man’s subsequent blows. Pain raced up Jasper’s cheekbone, jolting his senses, but with it came a vibrant, jubilant sensation.

Jasper’s feet were light, his hands charged with violent intent, his chest thundered with his elevated heart rate. He answered Enders’ attack with a vicious cut to his jaw. Jasper’s knuckles stung, but he barely noticed over the exhilaration making his heart pound. With distinct clarity, he saw the glow of the street lamp illuminating their fight, the yelling crowd, the flash of respect on Sevrin’s face. God, he felt alive.

Enders delivered a two-punch to Jasper’s stomach and side. Jasper danced backward a moment and considered his opponent’s technique. Detecting what he thought was a weak spot, he jabbed toward Enders’ middle, but the man grabbed Jasper’s arm and pulled him off balance.

While Jasper struggled to regain his upright position, Enders delivered a blow to his ribs. Then another to the side of his head. Jasper moved to the right, barely evading a third strike. He stumbled close to Sevrin, who was frowning.

Sevrin’s chin ticked up in warning, and Jasper threw himself to the street and rolled. Enders had lunged forward, pitching himself off balance to take Jasper down. Without Jasper to break his fall, he tumbled to the ground face-first.

Jasper jumped to his feet, insulted Sevrin had thought he’d needed help. Enders wrapped his hand around Jasper’s ankle and pulled.

“Kick him!” someone yelled.