A Loving Scoundrel

Page 1

Prologue

THE RAIN DIDN’T WASH AWAYthe stench or lessen the heat. It seemed to make them both worse. Trash was piled high in the alley—boxes, rotten food, crates, broken dishes, all manner of discarded things no one wanted anymore. The woman and child had crawled into one of the larger crates on the edge of the pile of trash—to hide. The child didn’t know why they needed to hide, but she’d felt the woman’s fear.

It had been a constant thing, that fear, in the woman’s expression, in her voice, in the trembling hand that held the child’s and dragged them from alley to alley at night, never during the day when they might come across other people.

Miss Jane, the woman had said to call her. The child thought she should have known that name, but she didn’t. She didn’t know her own name either, though the woman called her Danny lass, so that must be it.

Miss Jane wasn’t her mother. Danny had asked and been told, “No, I’m your nurse.” She never thought to ask what a nurse was, though, because it sounded like something she should know. Miss Jane had been with her from the start, the start of her memories, that is, which were actually only a few days old. She’d awakened lying beside the woman in an alley much like this one, both of them covered in blood, and they had been running and hiding in more alleys ever since.

Most of the blood had come from Miss Jane. She’d had a knife stuck in her chest and had other assorted wounds from where she’d been stabbed more than once. She’d managed to pull the knife out herself, when she woke up. But she hadn’t tended to those wounds. Her only concern had been the child and stopping the blood still seeping from the back of Danny’s head—and getting them away from that place where they’d woken up.

“Why are we hiding?” Danny had asked at one point, when it became obvious what they were doing.

“So he doesn’t find you.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know, child. I thought he was just a thief who went on a rampage of mayhem in order to leave no witnesses behind. But I’m not so sure now. He had too much purpose and was too intent on finding you. But I got you safely away and I’ll keep you safe. He won’t hurt you again, I promise you that.”

“I don’t remember being hurt.”

“Your memories will come back, Danny lass, don’t you fret none about that, though we can hope not too soon. It’s a blessing, truly, that they’re gone for now.”

Danny wasn’t upset that she could remember nothing prior to the blood. She was too young to worry about what might happen next. Her concerns were only immediate, hunger and discomfort, and that Miss Jane hadn’t woken up from their last sleep.

Her nurse had seemed to think they’d find something useful in the trash piled around them, but she’d been too weak to look yet. They’d crawled into the crate in the middle of the night, and Miss Jane had slept through the day.

It was night again and she was still sleeping. Danny had shaken her, but Miss Jane didn’t stir. She was cold and stiff. Danny didn’t know that meant she was dead and was what accounted for the worst of the stench.

Danny finally crawled outside the crate to take advantage of the rain while it lasted, to let it wash away some of the dried blood on her. She didn’t like being dirty and so concluded she must not be used to it. It was confusing though, knowing simple things like that, yet having no memory to support it.

She supposed she could search through the trash as Miss Jane had intended to do, though she wasn’t sure what to look for, what could be termed “useful.” She ended up gathering a few things she found interesting, a filthy rag doll that was missing one arm, a man’s hat that would keep the rain out of her eyes, a chipped plate that they could eat on—the missing arm from the doll.

Miss Jane had bargained a ring she’d been wearing yesterday for some food. It was the only time she’d ventured out during the day, wrapped up in her shawl to cover the worst of the bloodstains.

Danny wasn’t sure if she had more rings to bargain with, she hadn’t thought to look. But that was the last time she’d eaten. There was rotten food in the trash, but although she was hungry, she wouldn’t touch it. Not because she knew better, but because she had no concept of being desperate and the smell of it was offensive to her.

She would probably eventually have died of starvation, huddled in the crate next to the body of Miss Jane, waiting patiently for Miss Jane to wake up. But she investigated the sounds of someone else searching through the trash that night and came upon a young woman. She was a girl of no more than twelve, actually, but being so much bigger than herself, Danny put her in the category of adult at first.

Thus her tone was respectful, if a bit hesitant, when she said, “Good evening, ma’am.”

She’d startled the girl. “What are ye doing out in this rain, lass?”

“How did you know my name?”

“Eh?”

“That is my name. Dannilass.”

A chuckle. “More’n likely only half o’ that, dearie. You live near ’ere?”

“No, I do not think so.”

“Where’s yer mum, then?”

“I do not think I have one anymore,” Danny was forced to admit.

“Yer folks? Yer people? Yer too pretty to ’ave been let loose on yer own. Who are ye with?”

“Miss Jane.”

“Ah, there ye go,” the girl said brightly. “And where’s she gone off to?”

Danny pointed to the crate behind her, causing the girl to frown doubtfully. She took a look though, then a closer look, crawling inside the crate. Danny preferred not to go in it again herself, so didn’t. It smelled much nicer out with the trash.

When the girl returned, she took a deep breath and shuddered. She then bent down to Danny’s level and gave her a weak smile.

“Ye poor thing, was she all ye ’ad?”

“She was with me when I woke up. We were both hurt. She said the hurt on my head took my memories, but I would get them back someday. We have been hiding ever since, so the man who hurt us wouldn’t find us.”

“Well, now, that’s a bleedin’ shame. I s’pose I could take ye ’ome wi’ me, though it’s not really a ’ome, just a lot o’ children like ye, wi’out folks to care for ’em. We make do as best we can though. We all earn our keep, even the youngest like you. The boys pick pockets, so do the girls for that matter, till they’re old enough to earn their coins on their backs, which is wot I’ll be doing soon if that bastard Dagger ’as ’is way.”

The last was spit out in disgust, causing Danny to ask, “That is a bad job?”

“The very worst, dearie, sure to get ye the pox and a young death, but wot does Dagger care, long as the coins are comin’ in.”

“I do not want that job then. I will stay here, thank you.”

“You can’t—” the girl began, then amended, “Listen, I’ve an idea. I wish I could’ve done it for m’self, but I didn’t know then wot I do now. It’s too late for me, but not for ye—not if they think yer a lad.”

“But I am a girl.”

“Sure ye are, lass, but we can get ye some pants, chop off yer ’air, and—” The girl chuckled. “We won’t even need to tell ’em wot ye are. They’ll see ye in pants and think yer a boy right off. It will be like a game o’ pretend. It will be fun, ye’ll see. And it will let ye decide for yerself what job ye’ll be wanting to do when ye get older, ’stead o’ being told there’s only one job for ye, ’cause yer a girl. So how’s that sound, eh? Want to give it a try?”

“I do not think I have ever played pretend before, but I am willing to learn, ma’am.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Ye talk too fine, Danny. D’ye know no other way to talk?”

Danny started to offer yet another “I do not think so,” but shook her head instead, embarrassed.

“Then don’t talk at all, eh, till ye can talk like me. We don’t want yer speech drawing eyes to ye. I’ll be teaching ye, never ye fear.”

“Will Miss Jane be able to come with us, when she is feeling better?”

The girl sighed. “She’s dead. Too many wounds, it looked like, that never dried up. I covered ’er wi’ that big shawl—now don’t cry. Ye’ve got me to look after ye now.”

Chapter 1

JEREMYMALORYhad been in some unsavory taverns before, but this one was likely the worst of the lot. Not surprising, since it was located on the edge of what was quite possibly the worst of London’s slums, a neighborhood given over to thieves and cutthroats, prostitutes and wild packs of urchin orphans who were no doubt being groomed into London’s next generation of criminals.

He didn’t actually dare to enter the heart of that area. To do so would probably be the last his family would ever see of him. But this tavern, on the very edge of that den of thieves, was there for the unsuspecting to stumble upon, have a few drinks, and get their pockets picked, or if they were stupid enough to let a room there for the night, to get completely robbed, clothes and all.

Jeremy had paid for a room. Not only that, he’d spread his coins around freely, buying a round of drinks for the few customers in the tavern and giving a good performance of being quite foxed. He had deliberately set the stage for a robbery—his own. But then that’s why he and his friend Percy were there—to catch a thief.

Amazingly, Percy Alden was keeping his mouth shut for once. He was a chatterbox by nature, and quite scatterbrained on top of that. Percy’s keeping mostly quiet on this unusual outing attested to his nervousness. Understandable. Whereas Jeremy might feel right at home in this element, having been born and raised in a tavern before his father stumbled across him when he was sixteen, Percy was a member of the ton.

Jeremy had more or less inherited Percy when Percy’s two best friends, Nicholas Eden and Jeremy’s own cousin Derek Malory, had gone the domesticated route and got leg-shackled. And since Derek had taken Jeremy under his wing when Jeremy and his father, James, had returned to London after James’s long estrangement from his family ended, it was quite natural that Percy would now consider Jeremy his closest cohort for entertainments of the nondomesticated sort.

Jeremy didn’t mind. He was rather fond of Percy after chumming about with him for the last eight years. If he weren’t, he certainly wouldn’t have volunteered to extricate Percy from his latest folly—getting royally fleeced by one of Lord Crandle’s gambler friends at a house party last weekend. He’d lost three thousand pounds, his coach, and not one but two family heirlooms. He’d been so bloody foxed, he didn’t even remember it, until one of the guests commiserated with him the next day and told him all about it.

Percy had been quite done in, and rightly so. Losing the money and coach were no more than he deserved for being so gullible, but the two rings were a different matter entirely. One was so old it was the family signet ring, and the other, quite valuable because of its gemstones, had been passed down in Percy’s family for five generations now. Percy wouldnever have thought to use them as betting tender. He had to have been coerced, goaded, or otherwise duped into putting them in the pot.

All of it now belonged to Lord John Heddings, and Percy had been beside himself when Heddings refused to sell the rings back to him. Money the lord didn’t need. The coach he didn’t need. The rings he must have considered trophies, a testament to his gambling skill. More likely a testament to his cheating skill, but Jeremy could hardly prove it when he hadn’t been there to witness it.

Had Heddings been a decent sort, he would have sent Percy off to bed, instead of plying him further with drink and accepting the rings into the pot. Had he been a decent sort, he would have let Percy redeem them for their value. Percy had even been willing to pay more than they were worth. He wasn’t poor, after all, as he had already come into his inheritance when his father died.

But Heddings wasn’t interested in doing what was decent. Instead he’d gotten annoyed at Percy’s insistence and downright nasty in the end, threatening Percy with bodily harm if he didn’t stop bothering him. Which is what had annoyed Jeremy enough to suggest this alternative. Percy was quite convinced, after all, that his mother was going to disown him over this. He’d been avoiding her ever since, so she wouldn’t notice the rings were missing from his fingers.

Since they’d retired to the tavern’s upstairs room several hours ago, there had been three attempts to rob them. Bungled attempts each, and after the last, Percy was beginning to despair of finding a thief to carry out their mission. Jeremy was more confident. Three attempts in two hours meant there would be many more before the night was over.

The door opened again. There was no light in the room. There was no light out in the corridor either. If this new thief was any good, he wouldn’t need light, he would have waited long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Footsteps, a bit too loud. A match flicked.

Jeremy sighed and, in one fluid movement, left the chair near the door where he was keeping vigil. He was quieter about it than the thief had been upon entering the room and was suddenly there blocking his path, a mountain of a man, well, in comparison to the short thief, but big enough to scare the daylights out of the urchin, who immediately bolted back the way he’d come.

Jeremy slammed the door shut behind the fellow. He still wasn’t disheartened. The night was young. The thieves hadn’t gotten desperate yet. And if it came down to it, he’d just keep one of them until they agreed to bring him their best.

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