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Forbidden to Love the Duke(94)

By:Jillian Hunter

“I’d remove them, too, if I were going to plump pillows and take stock of linen wardrobes. I wouldn’t even have worn them here.”

“I brought the set to give to you,” Elora said quietly.

Ivy looked up in astonishment. “As a wedding present? I couldn’t accept anything this expensive. I appreciate the thought, Elora. I’m touched, but I don’t need a costly gift like this.”

Elora gave a sigh. “The set isn’t mine. I stole it from the Duchess Suite at Ellsworth. James had promised to pay me off in jewels, and I’m certain he forgot.”

“An oversight, yes,” Ivy murmured, afraid that this conversation was not going to end pleasantly over a fresh pot of tea. “Well, it was good of you to return them. If James promised you a present, he should—”

“I don’t want a gift from James.”

Ivy nodded. “That might be better, considering you hope to make a match with Curtis. I won’t say anything to James. In fact, I’ll hide these and you can put them back where you found them when we go back to Ellsworth for the wedding. I’ve a feeling that is where James would prefer to have the ceremony.”

Elora stared at the necklace in Ivy’s hand. “I won’t be able to attend the wedding.”

“Because of what you just told me?”

Elora smiled. “Because I’m about to be arrested any day for larceny. I have to leave England tonight. I’ve been warned that my last victim reported me to the police.”

“Victim?” Ivy said, taken aback. This was not the pleasant chat about making the town house comfortable for Curtis and the children that she’d envisioned. The tone of the conversation had taken a dark turn, indeed.

“I steal jewels that belong to the ladies whose lust-struck husbands I sleep with. While they’re still sleeping, of course. The gentlemen are too ashamed to admit their infidelities to their wives, and so when the theft is discovered, they invent elaborate stories about having noticed a young man or a gang lurking about the house earlier in the week.”

“You’re a jewel thief?” Ivy asked Elora, swallowing over the knot in her throat.

“Yes. It seemed a harmless adventure at the beginning. Sometimes I pawn the jewels, the gentlemen buy them back, and the wife isn’t the wiser. But the last gentleman I robbed decided he would be honest with his wife and bring me to justice. I’m leaving England as soon as I hear James’s carriage outside the house. I want to know that you’re safe before I escape. Despite everything that’s happened, I’ve never forgotten your kindness to me the evening of the masquerade.”

Ivy rose from the sofa, leaving the necklace and earbobs on the cushions, and went to the sideboard. “This calls for something stronger to drink than tea. How long have you been doing this?”

Elora smiled with a touch of pride. “From the night of my—our humiliation at the costume ball. My first theft was a small amethyst-studded hair comb worn by a spoiled debutante who found it great fun to gossip about my disgrace the rest of the night.”

“Oh.” Ivy couldn’t think of how one should respond. She couldn’t congratulate Elora. Nor could she find it in herself to condemn her.

“From stealing jewels,” Elora continued, “I graduated to stealing other women’s husbands. It gave me pleasure to sleep with the men whose wives had excluded me from society.”

“And James?”

“I would have married James in a heartbeat, but he didn’t love me, and I love Curtis, but he would never trust a woman like me.”

Ivy shook her head. “I have to be honest, I can’t imagine the duke or his brother being impressed by your résumé.” She stared down at the sideboard, her nerves prickling. She wished Elora hadn’t confessed any of this. It made her feel like an accomplice. “It appears that the servants have put out full decanters of brandy and whisky. Do you have a preference?”

Ivy turned slowly, sensing that Elora was not listening to her at all. Ivy glanced around the room. She saw the jewels glittering on the sofa beside Elora, the pincushion she had brought to mark repairs for the seamstress, and, standing in the doorway, a middle-aged man with a bulbous nose and ruddy cheeks.

“What,” Elora called out with loathing in her voice, “are you doing here?”

Chapter 35

James received a hearty welcome back to his club. He nodded to the old friends who remarked that they had missed him. He even managed to smile at members he had never met who expressed their desire to make his acquaintance. Some thanked him for his service at Albuera. A few expressed their regret at his brother Curtis, Viscount Bramhall’s, injury. He accepted their sympathy in appreciative silence.