Just a Little Seduction – Merry Farmer

WHENEVER THERE WAS a vital task to be done, David Wirth could be counted upon to do it. It had been true from David’s earliest childhood, when his hardworking parents handed him the responsibility of keeping his younger siblings out of harm in their rough-and-tumble, working-class neighborhood. It stayed true when his father had earned enough to move them onto a quieter, middle-class square in Belgravia. It had been true all through university as David paid his own way by tutoring his higher-born classmates. And it had been true ten years ago, when he and John Dandie banded together after leaving university to form the law offices of Dandie & Wirth. David was always the man people could count on to make even the most impossible tasks possible. He was a man with something to prove. That had never been truer than as he walked from table to table in the dining room of Stephen Siddel and Max Hillsboro’s newly-established orphanage in Earl’s Court, interviewing the recently rescued children who had been victims of a kidnapping ring. “Your name is Jimmy Hollis?” he asked the frightened boy of six who sat on the lap of Annie Ross, a woman who had worked side-by-side with Stephen at the orphanage in its old location and who had relocated, along with her mother, to the new site. The boy nodded, his eyes wide with fright. “And you were taken off the street in Limehouse?” David asked on, making his voice as soft as he could and smiling, in spite of the seriousness of his questions. Again, Jimmy nodded. “Do you have a mama or papa who is looking for you?” Jimmy shook his head. David’s heart squeezed in his chest, and he met Annie’s eyes. “Another orphan?” “He must be,” Annie said with a sigh.

“Or, if not an orphan, his family must be bad enough that he doesn’t want to go back.” David had heard the same story too many times in the last few days. He and Lionel had been working to reunite the rescued children with their families, but more often than not, the poor things either didn’t have any or didn’t want to go back. A swell of determination filled David. “We’ll find a place for you, lad.” He rose, ruffling Jimmy’s already messy hair as he did. He had to prove that he was competent and capable of so much more than people assumed a boy from his background, a boy just like Jimmy, was capable of. “Mr. Siddel’s orphanage is for girls, but Sister Constance is willing to take in any boys.” “And Lord Hillsboro has been pressing Mr.

Siddel to start an orphanage for boys across the square,” Annie added. “That’s a good idea.” David smiled and stepped away, heading to the next table and the next group of rescued children. The child kidnapping ring had been broken, thanks to the efforts of actor Everett Jewel and Patrick Wrexham, not to mention the weeks of work David himself, and his business partner, Lionel Mercer, had put into tracking down the ringleaders. The work wasn’t over yet, though. Not only were there dozens of children to return to their families or to find homes for, the ringleaders—all three of them noblemen of high rank—had disappeared when the police raided Castleford Estate in Yorkshire. Enough evidence had been secured to arrest Lord Castleford, Lord Eastleigh, and Lord Chisolm for their crimes, but the men were still on the loose. Rage rolled through David’s gut every time he thought about how easily the nobs had gotten away. The same nobs who looked down on men like him simply because of where they were born. They wouldn’t get away entirely, though.

Not if he had anything to say about it. A chorus of light laughter broke the gloom of David’s thoughts, and he turned toward a table of slightly older girls at the other end of the room. Lionel sat among them, reading from a leather-bound book, a pair of spectacles balanced on his nose. His expression was as grave as a minister’s, but the girls all beamed at him as though he were a clown performing magic tricks on a stage. A hitch formed in David’s chest as he watched Lionel. The man was dressed impeccably, as usual, in a dove grey suit with a lavender cravat. Not a hair on his head was out of place. His pale face was splashed with just enough color to make him seem lively. The way his lips moved as he read to the girls hinted at humor, even though David was too far away to hear what he was saying. The gentleness of Lionel’s face was in direct contrast to the broad lines of his shoulders and the decidedly masculine, though slender, set of his body.

Lionel was an erotic blend of masculine and feminine that never failed to leave David breathless. Which was inconvenient in a room filled with children. He sucked in a breath, forcing himself to stop watching Lionel and get on with his business. But the second he resumed walking to the next table, Lionel darted a covert look at him. He managed it without moving a single muscle, only his eyes, and the effect had David breaking out in prickles down his back. It was no surprise to him that Lionel was aware of him staring. Lionel always knew when David was watching him. Possibly because David was always watching him. David cleared his throat and sank into a free chair at a table with three boys who looked to be between nine and eleven. “Hello,” he said, holding out his hand as though they were adults.

“I’m Mr. David Wirth. Has Mr. Siddel explained who I am?” “You’re the man trying to find people’s families,” the boy with ginger hair said. “That’s correct. Can you tell me anything that might help us search?” “Fred here cries for his mama in his sleep.” The ginger boy stuck his thumb out at the mousey boy sitting next to him. “What’s her name, lad, and where are you from? I’m sure we can find her and reunite the two of you,” David said. “She’s dead, sir,” Fred confessed, lowering his head. “Trampled by a horse two years ago.

I got no other family.” David let out a sympathetic breath and reached out to pat the boy’s hand. He’d been hearing the same story over and over from the remaining children. Everyone who had a family they could be reunited with had already been taken home. The ones who were left had no homes to go to. The sensation that thought brought with it was oddly familiar, tender, aching, and emotional. David glanced across the room to Lionel, feeling it acutely in his chest. Lionel was still reading and the girls around him continued to giggle, but there was a distinct tension in the air, tension in the distance between him and Lionel, a barrier keeping them apart in spite of the pulse of emotion that throbbed between them. David let out a breath and leaned back in his chair, rubbing a hand over his face. “You all right, guv’nor?” the ginger boy asked.

David lowered his hands and sent the boy a lopsided smile. “I honestly have no idea.” And he didn’t. In the last few weeks, his life had gone from business as usual to a jungle of intense and conflicting emotions, and all because of Lionel. He didn’t try to hide the way he stared at his partner and thorn in his side. He’d never hidden the way he felt about Lionel from himself. Lionel captivated him. He had almost from the moment John had hired him four years before, right before he left for Manchester and a new life. Lionel was brilliant, powerful, and beautiful. It was impossible not to want him in every way.

And for a while there, David had been convinced he was on the verge of having him at last. Until Everett Jewel had blasted into the picture, like a cannonball tearing down a wall. No, that wasn’t fair. Jewel wasn’t interested in Lionel and hadn’t been for years. Besides which, Jewel was happy as a clam with Patrick Wrexham now. But Jewel was also under Lionel’s skin somehow, as evidenced by the very public argument they’d had at The Chameleon Club a fortnight ago. An argument that had proven to David that there was no place for him in Lionel’s heart as long as he still carried a torch for Jewel. Nothing destroyed a man’s pride faster than being hopelessly in love with a man who loved someone else. But there was something else, something David couldn’t put his finger on. He couldn’t shake how uncharacteristically upset Lionel had become during the argument with Jewel or some of the vague things Lionel had said.

There was something Lionel wasn’t telling him, something important. “Oy!” The ginger boy snapped his fingers at David, startling him back to attention. “You gonna stare at the girls all day or you gonna try and find my folks?” David burst into a smile in spite of himself. “You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you?” He sat straighter, sending Lionel one last look before focusing on the boy. “What’s your name and where are you from?” “Mick Lang,” the ginger boy said. “And I’m from Poplar.” “Alright, Mick.” David nodded, charmed by the scamp. “Who are your parents and where can we find them?” “My dad’s Prime Minister Gladstone and mum’s the washerwoman,” Mick said, then burst into laughter. The two other boys laughed raucously with him.

David smirked, figuring Mick was just as much of an orphan as every other child in the room, but one with a wicked sense of humor. “Well then, Mr. Gladstone,” he laughed. “We’ll see what we can do about getting you settled.” He leaned in, ready to ask more questions, but a commotion in the doorway snagged everyone’s attention. As Jack Craig, Lord Clerkenwell, Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, strode into the orphanage’s dining room, every adult who knew who he was rose in respect, David along with them. The urge to prove himself to someone he admired flared so potently in David that he almost laughed at himself. Lionel stood as well, passing the book he’d been reading to one of the girls and stepping away from his table. “Excuse me, lads,” David murmured, doing the same. By the time David reached the dining room doorway, Stephen and Max had also left their work with the orphans to converge on Lord Clerkenwell, along with Lionel.

“It’s an honor to welcome you to our establishment, my lord,” Stephen greeted the man with a firm handshake. “Mr. Siddel.” Lord Clerkenwell nodded and smiled as he shook Stephen’s hand, then moved on to Max, and then David. “Gentlemen. I’ve come to see how much progress you’ve made in settling the children.” When Lord Clerkenwell reached for Lionel’s hand, rather than offering his, Lionel bowed. “They are perfect darlings, as you can see,” Lionel said with a smile over his shoulder for the girls, who continued to beam at him and giggle. Lord Clerkenwell chuckled, then turned to Stephen. “I take it the ones who remain are in need of new homes?” “Correct, my lord.

” Stephen nodded. “But we’re doing our best to accommodate them.” “Good,” Lord Clerkenwell said. “And in the meantime, we can move on to the more pressing matter of tracking down the men responsible for their sad state and bringing them to justice.” “As I mentioned the other day, my lord, Lionel and I are at your disposal and would relish the chance to hunt the men down,” David said, bristling with the energy to show Lord Clerkenwell what he could accomplish. Lionel glared sideways at him. “You’re speaking for me now, are you?” he asked in an undertone, perhaps intending for only David to hear, as Lord Clerkenwell continued to speak to Stephen and Max. David flinched, gut filling with indignation. “I’m speaking on behalf of Dandie & Wirth,” he muttered in return. “Oh, of course.

” Lionel rolled his eyes dramatically. “Because you always speak on behalf of Dandie & Wirth.” David turned more fully toward him, crossing his arms. “What in blazes is that supposed to mean?” “Only that you seem to have elected yourself spokesman for the both of us without consulting me first.” Lionel’s back was ramrod straight, and his usual aura of calm power crackled with irritation. David gaped at him. “What has gotten into you these last few weeks?” he asked, trying to keep thing between them but too startled by the bitterness of Lionel’s attitude to contain himself. “Nothing,” Lionel said in a hoarse and haunted voice. “Nothing has gotten into me in quite some time, as you well know.” David snapped his lips shut, clenching his jaw, no idea whether Lionel was trying to make a joke about his self-imposed celibacy or drive home the point that they were not lovers, in spite of knowing how David felt about the possibility.

Beyond that, the feeling that Lionel was holding something back from him twisted David’s gut. He’d never kept secrets before. As badly as David wanted to prove to Lord Clerkenwell that he was competent, he wanted to prove to Lionel that he adored him and could be trusted with his heart even more. Lord Clerkenwell cleared his throat, glancing between David and Lionel in a way that proved he, and everyone else, was listening, then on to Stephen and Max. “Regardless,” he began warily, “time is of the essence when it comes to hunting down Chisolm, Castleford, and Eastleigh.” He sent a cautious glance in Max’s direction. “My father only has so many means of escape,” Max said, color splashing his cheeks. There was no love lost between him and his father, Lord Eastleigh, but it was plain for all to see how ashamed he was of his own flesh and blood’s involvement in the kidnapping ring. “To be honest,” he went on, “I have reason to believe Father might be in London.” “Truly?” David’s brow shot up.

His feud with Lionel was momentarily forgotten. “What makes you so certain?” Lord Clerkenwell crossed his arms and stared at Max. “The most recent information Scotland Yard has places him in Southampton, attempting to book passage aboard a ship bound for his Caribbean holdings.” Max shrugged. “I spotted my brother, George, in town just yesterday. George detests London in the summer. Only something monumentally important would drag him out of the country at this time of year, especially with my mother and sisters in residence in Hampshire.” “Is there any way to prove Eastleigh is in London?” Lord Clerkenwell asked. “Any way to contact him or your brother?” Max sighed and shook his head. “I’ve been utterly disowned by my family.

” He exchanged a look with Stephen, who took his hand and squeezed it comfortingly. A slight grimace pulled at the corner of David’s mouth. Max wasn’t the only man like them to be disowned when their true desires were exposed. He still had a sore spot in his heart from the last time he’d spoken with his father. “Surely, there must be some way we can make contact, though,” Stephen said supportively. “I doubt it.” Max rubbed a hand over his face, then glanced to Lord Clerkenwell. “I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.” “You may yet be able to help.” Lord Clerkenwell frowned in thought.

“If not in the search for your father, then in our attempts to capture the other two.” “Do we have any idea at all where they are?” Stephen asked. “Castleford was last spotted in Liverpool, attempting to leave England through that port,” Lord Clerkenwell said. “Though our latest intelligence suggests he’s gone inland, perhaps to Manchester, to wait things out for a while.” David’s gut clenched at the mention of Manchester. He had never visited the city, but he had ties to it. Definitive ties. Specifically, John Dandie. He peeked sideways at Lionel, unsurprised to find Lionel eyeing him with equal parts wariness and hurt. Though it was hypocritical in the extreme for Lionel to look so emotional, given the way he’d behaved with Jewel.

“Chisolm has gone north,” Lord Clerkenwell went on, “though we’re not certain where at this time. I’ve dozens of men working on the case, however. Even a man like him won’t be able to hide forever.” “We’ll find him,” David said, glancing to Lionel. He nodded, acknowledging Lionel as his business partner, rather than whatever other mess stood between them at the moment. Lionel’s eyes widened slightly. “So you’re including me in your endeavors now, are you?” A new wave of frustration crashed over David. He clenched his fists at his sides before he could stop himself. “You were always included, Lionel. Any exclusion has been your own creation.

” “Oh, yes.”

.

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