Noble Scoundrel – Amy Sandas

“What d’you find out?” Mason waited impatiently with his arms crossed as Dell Turner took a seat in one of the pink and yellow chintz-covered chairs complete with scrolled arms and claw-foot legs. Turner had a specifically developed talent for looking at home and at ease no matter where he happened to be. Mason took position near the fireplace rather than trust the ridiculously delicate-looking furniture. For years, Mason had known Turner as an occasional sparring partner who frequented similar haunts around London’s East End. He’d only recently discovered his friend was also the man known with equal awe in both the rookery and the ton as Nightshade, a man of various talents and unmentionable skills who accomplished tasks (usually covert and often dangerous) no one else could. When Turner finally glanced up, his expression was as flat as his tone. “Not much. Maybe nothing at all.” “Out with it.” Turner responded to the sharp command with a subtle tilt of his head. Mason’s size and rough manner had a tendency to threaten people even when it wasn’t his intention. He wasn’t above using his brutish appearance to his advantage when necessary, but such tactics weren’t likely to work on Turner. His harsh words had been more a product of his impatience than an attempt at intimidation. With a lift of his brows, Mason waited for Turner to continue. “There’ve been murmurs—nothing specific and nothing concrete—of a former Runner by the name of George Boothe poking around for information that lines up with our own inquiries.

” “Such as?” “He’s been asking about a boy, twelve years old, dark hair and eyes, with fine speech, recently arrived in London…currently suspected to be alone in the city.” Alone in the city. The words triggered an instant tension in Mason’s body and a sickening twist in his guts. It wasn’t so many weeks ago that his two-year-old daughter had been lost in the great and terrible city. He hadn’t learned of Claire’s existence until she was already a few months old. Her mother had worked at a dance hall near the docks, and though she and Mason had been lovers for a short time, they’d parted ways after only a brief affair. It wasn’t until several months later that Molly had come knocking on his door, demanding money for the care and keeping of the girl-child swaddled in her arms. Peeking at the tiny pink face of his daughter for the very first time, Mason had experienced a kind of fear he’d never known before. His only example of fatherhood had been his own drunken, violent sire, and he was confident he wouldn’t manage to do much better. Believing the babe was best off in her mother’s care, he didn’t see his small daughter as often as he’d have liked, but he supported them as best he could.

Molly tended to move about a lot and there were times Mason had no idea where his daughter was. But he’d never believed her to be in danger. He regretted that assumption more than anyone could know. If he’d been more present, he might have noticed Molly’s growing addiction to opium. If he been a proper sort of father, Claire would have been with him when Molly abandoned her and left London for parts unknown. Mason had torn London apart looking for Claire, hating himself for not being there when her mother had failed to be. When his brute force tactics failed to turn up any clue to Claire’s whereabouts, he’d gone to the one man in London who might succeed where he’d failed. Nightshade. L A man Mason also knew as Dell Turner. Proving worthy of his reputation, Nightshade had located young Claire in the hands of a criminal gang led by a man named Bricken, who intended to smuggle her and others from the country to be sold into servitude and worse overseas.

Just a couple weeks ago, Mason, Turner, and two of Nightshade’s associates rescued Claire and nearly a dozen others from the kidnappers’ warehouse. All of the other children had been returned to their respective homes, orphanages, or whatever street gang they ran with except for one older boy who called himself Freddie. It was clear by his refined manner and rich clothing that the boy was of the nobility, but he steadfastly refused to tell them anything of his people or origins. It had also been equally obvious that Freddie had acted as Claire’s protector during their horrid ordeal. Noticing how the shy and frightened little girl had clung to the older boy after their rescue, Mason decided to take Freddie in until Turner could dig up some information on the tight-lipped lad. After several days and innumerable dead-ends, Turner finally had something of a lead. Though vague, the description certainly fit Freddie. It could be the same boy. Could be someone else entirely. When Turner didn’t say more, Mason frowned.

“That’s it?” The other man’s expression remained closed and his hazel eyes assessing. Whatever was going on in his swift and cunning brain wasn’t revealed in his gaze. “As I said…it could be nothing.” Mason’s back teeth clenched. There was more. “Tell me.” “I put a tail on Boothe to gather more information. He was observed reporting to a home in Mayfair—a mansion long entailed to the Duke of Northmoor. For decades, the place has been empty but for a few servants.” Turner’s method of providing information was getting infuriating.

Mason preferred blunt, straightforward talk. “The point, Turner.” “The former duke lived a reclusive life in the country until he was killed in a house fire several months ago. His wife had passed a number of years earlier so Northmoor’s death left behind two orphaned children. Since the fire that took their father also destroyed much of their home, the young duke—currently aged twelve—and his adult sister moved into the long-neglected London residence.” Turner paused before adding, “The new Duke of Northmoor is also known as Frederick Blackwell.” Mason stared. Incredulous. “You’re saying Freddie’s a blasted duke?” “It’s a possibility.” Mason thought of the boy currently upstairs.

Judging by the clothing he’d worn when he’d been found and his refined manners, it was highly likely he came from a noble family. But a goddamned duke? He met Turner’s solemn gaze. “A newly minted duke goes missing and there’s not a whimper of it in the papers? No demand to drain the Thames? There should’ve been an army of Runners choking the streets and knocking on every door.” “Odd, isn’t it?” Turner agreed. “The two have been as reclusive in town as they’d been in the country.” Mason began to pace across the room but stopped when he nearly toppled an entire display of porcelain farm animals. “If Freddie and this duke are one and the same, he had to’ve gone missing weeks ago. Assuming it’s the sister who’s searching for him, why wouldn’t she have gotten the full force of Bow Street on the case instead of one retired Runner?” Turner shrugged. “Why would the boy refuse to reveal his identity once he’d been rescued from Bricken?” He cast a sardonic glance about the room. “Nothing against your new place, but you’d think the boy would be anxious to return to the luxury of Mayfair.

” The two men looked at each other. Turner’s expression was calm, alert, implacable, whereas Mason could feel frustration in the tugging weight of his brow and the hard clench of his jaw. He hated mysteries and wanted the one about Freddie cleared. He didn’t like owing anyone and this debt was too big to ignore. It wouldn’t be satisfied until he saw Freddie reunited with his people. A difficult task, since the boy had not been forthcoming on that issue. “Northmoor is a wealthy dukedom. Maybe he’s worried you’ll demand a ransom to return him once you discover his origins.” There was an obvious tone of reprimand in Turner’s voice. “You have employed similar villainy in the past.

” Mason narrowed his gaze at the overt reference to his less than honorable behavior when he’d been desperate to recover his daughter. In the weeks prior to abandoning Claire, Molly had been working Mason over for money. She’d claimed she wanted to start a new life free from prostitution and the draw of opium. But when Mason hadn’t gotten the funds she’d demanded fast enough, she’d threatened to take Claire somewhere he’d never find her. As a moneylender for underground boxing matches, Mason was forced to call in markers on every loan pending repayment. Even one he’d been inclined to let slide. Back then, he’d still believed Molly was a good mother, despite her selfishness and her struggle with opium. If he’d known what she was capable of, he’d have claimed his daughter and left her mother to fend for herself. There was a helluva lot he’d have done differently, if he’d been less selfish himself. “I’m not proud of what I did to the Chadwick chits,” he replied stiffly.

He wasn’t accustomed to explaining himself to anyone, but figured he owed something on this. “I was out of my head when Molly threatened to take Claire away and needed the money their father owed.” Turner stared back at him, cool and silently assessing. Then he gave a short nod signaling the topic was at rest. At least for now. Since that situation had involved someone close to Turner, Mason suspected it would be a long time before the matter was fully forgiven. Probably rightfully so. Still…Mason couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t do the same if Claire ever again ended up in peril. Which brought him back to Freddie, the boy who’d done his best to protect the little girl when Mason couldn’t. He ran his hand along his jaw.

“Could be Freddie’s got some other reason for not wanting to go home. How could a young nobleman end up in the hands of a man like Bricken in the first place?” Turner tilted his head. “Good question. That blighter sure as hell wouldn’t’ve had the means to abduct a duke and likely never would have thought to try, which means he probably acquired Freddie by a stroke of luck or random opportunity.” He paused. Hazel eyes darkened in thought. “Or someone saw Bricken as a convenient means of disposing of the boy.” “Shit,” Mason muttered. “What d’you know of the sister?” “Only that Lady Katherine Blackwell is twenty years of age and never had a London debut. As I said, they’ve lived a very reclusive life.

” “Could she be behind it all?” “There is not enough information to confirm nor refute that possibility.” But it was a possibility. “Until there is,” Mason replied, “we consider her a threat.” “Assuming Freddie and this Duke of Northmoor are one and the same.” Mason considered Freddie’s manner of absolute self-containment and that subtle air of command he possessed without even trying. The way he kept silent about his home and people. His stiff manner and suspicious gaze. A certainty settled in Mason’s bones. “It’s him.” Turner didn’t refute his statement, leading Mason to think he believed the same.

“Well, at least there are no rumors connecting the boy with a certain former bare-knuckle boxer.” Mason thought for a moment before replying. “Maybe there should be.” Turner’s brows lifted. “You want to invite some trouble?” “Wouldn’t be the first time,” Mason replied with a slow, humorless grin. “Have one of your people get word to this Boothe that the boy might have been seen at my old place.” “It’ll be done,” Turner replied with a short nod, “but I won’t be able to join you. I’m leaving town tomorrow for a few weeks.” Mason chuckled. “I’m pretty sure I can handle one retired Runner.

I’ve just got a few questions for the bloke. I won’t be turning Freddie over to anyone who might be of a mind to harm him further.” Turner rose to his feet and smoothed the wrinkles from the coat. “If you need anything while I’m gone, get in touch with Morley. You know where to find him?” Mason nodded, then couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke at the man a bit. “Your partner stopped by this morning,” he noted casually. Turner’s features remained flatly composed. “Or shouldn’t I call her that?” Mason asked as humor twisted his lips. “The lady said you two weren’t working together anymore. In fact, she didn’t seem too pleased with you at all.

Honeymoon over?” When Turner finally responded to Mason’s ribbing, it wasn’t in the way he’d expected. Instead of revealing irritation, Turner’s mouth curved in a crafty smile. “Just the opposite. The honeymoon begins tomorrow.” Mason should have figured Nightshade would have an angle. He shook his head and gave a short laugh. “You’re a brave man. She doesn’t seem the type of female who’s easily managed.” Turner rolled his eyes and made a low sound of frustration, and for the first time during their conversation, a hint of cockney entered his voice. “An understatement of mythic proportions, mate.

Good thing I’ve decided to stop trying.” Then he turned and left, leaving Mason in the parlor filled with pastel ruffles and flowery prints and knickknacks on every surface and furniture he couldn’t sit in. Mason had rented the fully furnished house the day after saving Claire and Freddie from Bricken’s gang. His old place had been an office building where he’d conducted his business, running the stakes for the bare-knuckle fights in which he’d been undefeated before retiring from the ring. Though he’d also used his office as a residence, it wasn’t suitable for two children. If he intended to stay in this house of flounce and frippery, there was a lot he’d need to change. But he knew even less about decorating than he did about caring for children, and he had no idea how long they’d stay, so the house and its excessive decor would remain as they were for the foreseeable future.

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