This Duchess of Mine Page 30

“I hate it when you do that,” she said crossly.

“What?” He honestly looked surprised.

“Make me feel so shabby.”

“I don’t mean to.”

“I suppose you can’t help it. Don’t you ever get tired of being so good, Elijah? Of always—”

His face looked forbidding now. “Always what?”

“Knowing the right thing to do?” Being better than the rest of us frivolous mortals, she wanted to say. But she didn’t dare.

“I am neither better nor worse than the next man,” he said, biting the words. “I have compromised on issues where I felt bitterly that the better option—the kinder, more ethical option—was being tossed to the side.”

The carriage rocked to a halt. “Don’t be frightened,” he said, holding out a hand to her. His smile helped. “I do believe you’ll find yourself interested, Jemma. And I need you to know of this place.”

“Why?” she asked, just as the footman opened the door to the carriage.

“You’ll have to carry on,” he said, rather obscurely.

But Jemma knew instantly what he was referring to, and her heart hiccupped from fear. Then she pulled herself together. She had the blood of three arrogant duchesses running through her veins. She could certainly survive a visit to Spitalfields.

They stepped out onto a street that was presumably made of cobblestones, but if so, the stones were buried under a thick compost of rotting vegetables. It felt like a springy blanket under her feet, as if made of horse hair.

“The carriage won’t fit in Cow Cross,” Elijah said, tucking her arm under his. “It’s just down there.”

Cow Cross was one of those little alleys that lurched suddenly off the street as if it were a hare fleeing a fox. This one broke left and then faded into the same rusty darkness as the alleys she’d glimpsed from the carriage.

“You see?” Elijah said, sounding amused. “No one is lurking in Cacky Street, hoping that a duchess with a jewel in her slipper will happen by.”

That was true enough. She didn’t see a single person, only a great congregation of ravens sitting atop a dilapidated house. They looked down at the two of them in a disapproving fashion, as if they were preachers in ragged blacks, squawking at the incongruity of a ducal carriage in Cacky Street.

“Where is everyone?” Jemma asked. She had the mistaken idea that the poor lived in the street. That was how they were depicted in the papers: cooking, sleeping, fighting in the open. But Cacky Street was empty, just a twisted, shabby street dozing in the sun.

“Sleeping,” Elijah said. “Working.” He glanced at her and there was a gleam of something in his eye.

“Making love. If you’re not rich enough to have a hundred rooms, you know, you find yourself curled up next to the missus of a morning and that gives a man ideas.”

Jemma ignored him. “Where are your glassworks?”

“Down to the left,” Elijah said, his face closing again. Somehow she’d asked the wrong question.

“Well,” she said brightly, “shall we continue to Cow Cross?”

Once they entered the lane, Cow Cross wasn’t as dark as it had seemed from Cacky Street. A bit of sun managed to sneak past the buildings that leaned and wobbled toward each other like tipsy matrons sharing secrets. Elijah stamped down the lane as if it belonged to him, which, for all Jemma knew, it did.

The lane curved to the left and then stopped. “This is it,” he said.

It was the biggest house in the street, though that wasn’t saying much. And it was definitely in the best repair. Of course, it would be, since it was Elijah’s. There was a large door with a rusty knocker, but Elijah simply pushed it open.

“I stopped begging them to lock the door years ago,” he said to her.

“Why don’t they wish to?”

“If someone really wants to come in, they’ll come regardless of a lock. It’s Spitalfields. So they prefer to channel visitors through the door. It saves on wear and tear. Ah, Knabby, there you are.”

A small stout man was coming toward them, squinting in the gloom of the hallway. “Yer Grace!” he said happily. “Now this is truly a pleasure. You’re here for the birthday, of course. May I say what an honor it is that you remembered such an event? Cully will be happy, but happy indeed!”

Jemma could tell that Elijah had no memory of a birthday, but he didn’t say so. Instead he drew her forward and said, “Mr. Knabby, may I present my wife, the duchess?”

Knabby blinked at her uncertainly. “A duchess,” he said. “A woman!” Then, as if he suddenly remembered the protocol, he bobbed something between a curtsy and a bow.

“A pleasure,” Jemma said.

“What a lovely voice,” Knabby said, cocking his head to one side. “Yes, it sounds like a duchess. I shall remember that, indeed I shall. So that is what a duchess sounds like!” He wasn’t squinting due to the dark, Jemma realized. He had a permanent squint.

Jemma looked up at Elijah. “Knabby has lost his sight,” he told her.

“I see a bit, I see a bit,” Knabby put in. “Light and shadows, really. Better than many.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Jemma said. She knew Elijah had to be involved in a charitable project. It was so like him. But her smile died at the hard look in his eyes.

“Knabby lost his sight because he worked in our glassblowing factory,” Elijah said, and his voice was flinty.

Knabby had turned and was making his way briskly along the dark corridor. “Do come along to the birthday!” he called. “Oh my yes, I was a glassblower, m’lady. Is it my lady? Or is there something else I should be a-calling her? Is she a grace as well? Or duchess lady?”

“You may call me whatever you wish,” Jemma said, picking up her skirts and following him.

“Do you wish to give me a report, before we go to the birthday party?” Elijah asked Knabby.

Knabby stopped suddenly, and Jemma almost ran into him. Then he started jabbering so fast she could hardly follow. “Nibble’s wife has been staying with him for a spell, but they do fight something terrible. So I moved them to the back of the house where no one can hear her a-beating on him.”

“Beating on him?” Jemma said, unable to stop herself.

Knabby turned his face toward her. “She’s a devilishly strong woman, and if you give her a saucepan, she can make a right rumpus,” he said. “Especially when he’s been in the drink. ’Course, Nibble isn’t easy either. Many’s the time that my hand has itched for a saucepan, if you take my meaning.”

“How’s Waxy doing?” Elijah asked. “Waxy is a quite elderly gentleman,” he told Jemma. “He must be around sixty now, isn’t he, Knabby?”

“Well, he has his lung problems. He has those. But his daughter’s been visiting him regular-like, with a couple babes in tow, so he’s right as a flea in a cup of tea.”

“Has the doctor been coming weekly?”

Knabby started down the hall again. “A waste of your ready that is, Yer Grace. A waste of the ready. There’s nothing the man can do and we’re all happy. Though he did pull a tooth for Cully the other day.”

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