Home > Never a Duke (Rogues to Riches #7)

Never a Duke (Rogues to Riches #7)
Author: Grace Burrowes

 

Chapter One

 

“She smelled like Hyde Park,” Artie said. “And she were pretty.”

Artie was the newest and youngest of the Wentworth bank messengers, a dark-eyed imp of indeterminate years with a curious affinity for soap and water. In Ned Wentworth’s experience, cleanliness was an acquired habit for children consigned to London’s streets.

Artie, unlike Ned himself, had taken to regular bathing with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl shopping for hair ribbons.

“This woman smelled like horse droppings?” Lord Stephen Wentworth asked.

“Nah, milord. Not like the streets, like the park.” Artie raised his little paw as if to wipe his nose on the back of his wrist.

Ned passed him a monogrammed handkerchief. “Do you mean she bore the fragrance of fresh air and greenery?”

“She smelled like spring,” Artie said, snatching the linen and honking into it. “All sweet and sunny.” He folded the handkerchief and held it out to Ned. “Thanks, guv.”

Stephen was milord, while Ned was guv, and thus it would ever be. “Keep it, lad,” Ned said. “So the lady wore a lovely fragrance, was pretty, and passed you a note that you were to give directly to me?”

“Was she pretty like a fine lady,” Lord Stephen asked, “or pretty like the women outside the theaters of an evening?”

Artie looked affronted. “She weren’t no whore. She got into a fancy coach with crests on the doors and boot. Whores don’t have crested carriages. She thanked me and give me tuppence for my trouble.”

To a child like Artie, the thanks would mean almost as much as the coin. “You’ve done well, Arthur,” Ned said, “and my thanks for your discretion. Keep an eye out for that fancy coach, and if you see it again let me know.”

Artie had the most cherubic smile, all bashful and innocent, which was doubtless why the schools for pickpockets had been haggling over which one would recruit him. And Artie, already wise to the ways of the streets, would have considered that training vastly preferable to many other ways of earning his bread.

“On your way,” Lord Stephen said, gesturing with his cane toward the door. “And keep mum, my boy. This is bank business.”

The lads took pride in protecting the bank’s privacy, as had Ned when he’d been a boy with a bottomless belly and little ability to safeguard himself.

Lord Stephen waited until Artie had withdrawn before taking a seat on the tufted sofa near the fireplace. Ned’s office was comfortable, not quite luxurious. The bank’s owner, Quinton, Duke of Walden, didn’t go in for ostentation in commercial establishments, or much of anywhere.

“So what does she say?” Lord Stephen, His Grace’s brother and heir, didn’t go in for allowing anybody privacy. He would not snatch the note from Ned, but only because his lordship relied on canes for balance, and Ned wasn’t above shoving Stephen onto his handsome arse if the situation called for it.

The situation, alas, hadn’t called for it for years.

Ned sniffed the note. “The wax is scented with roses.” And the seal wasn’t the usual reddish blob, but rather, lavender and sporting an impression of a rose. Ned slit the seal with a thumbnail.

Mr. Wentworth, if you will attend me at 2 of the clock today on the third bench along the Serpentine, I will make it worth your while.

 

Ned passed Stephen the note.

“A summons from a woman, Neddy? You aren’t going, are you? We will never see you again, and Hercules will be bereft.”

Hercules was a mastiff belonging to Stephen’s wife. The canine would pine for a joint of beef longer than he would for Ned.

“You certainly heed any summons your darling Abigail issues,” Ned said. That Stephen—brilliant, contrary, lame, and opinionated—had found wedded bliss two years past rankled. True, he was a handsome devil, charming when it suited him, titled, and wealthy, but still.

Stephen wasn’t easy company, while Ned had worked tirelessly on his manners and deportment, and could make small talk with dowagers by the hour.

“Abigail is my dearest lady wife,” Stephen retorted. “You have no idea who this woman is, or what her purpose is, if indeed, a woman sent that note. You don’t need coin, so what could she offer you that makes such a risk worth taking?”

“That doesn’t matter.” Ned inventoried his appearance in the cheval mirror and smoothed down his cravat. “I can do with a walk, and it’s a pretty day.” Then too, walking meant his Meddling Nuisance-ship would remain at the bank.

“Stubborn,” Stephen muttered. “Stubborn, opinionated, difficult, and too smart for your own good.”

“You forgot handsome.” Ned selected a mahogany walking stick with a lead weight secreted in the carved lion’s-head handle. “Her Grace says I have slumberous eyes and a noble nose.”

“You have shifty eyes and a great, arrogant beak. Be careful, Neddy. I don’t like cryptic notes or assignations with women who drive about in fancy coaches.”

Ned tapped his top hat onto his head. “You’re jealous because I have a mystery to solve.” He tilted the hat an inch to the left, a nod to his bachelor status.

“I fear for your life and you insult me. Take the dog. The lads are walking him for me.”

“The lads are doubtless spoiling the beast rotten and neglecting their duties.” Bickering with Stephen was an old habit though no longer the pleasure it had once been.

Stephen held his forearm to his brow. “Not neglecting their duties! Heaven forefend small boys should get some fresh air on a fine day. Clap me in irons for corrupting the morals of a lot of budding thieves and pickpockets! Summon the beadle!”

Ned extracted another monogrammed handkerchief from a desk drawer and folded it into his pocket. “They aren’t budding thieves or pickpockets anymore. Will I see you at supper tomorrow?”

Once a month, Ned endured supper with Stephen and his ducal brother at their club. The agenda was a combination of bank business and family tattle, though Ned had only a small ownership interest in the bank, and wasn’t family in any biological sense.

“Her Grace will fret if her menfolk neglect their monthly supper,” Stephen said, pushing to his feet. “I could go to the park in your place, Neddy.”

“The note was sent specifically to me.” Why? By whom? A lady fallen on hard times could have had Ned quietly call upon her at home, a service conscientious bankers routinely performed for valued customers.

Stephen took up his second walking stick. “Abigail says you need a wife.”

“As it happens, she’s right.”

Dark brows rose. “You admit that holy matrimony would enhance your happiness?”

Stephen apparently intended to see personally that Ned took the dratted dog to the park.

“I admit that I am of age and of independent means. The next move up the ladder of respectability is to make an advantageous match.”

They quit the office, though Stephen’s limitations meant their progress down the carpeted corridor was decorous.

“You make marriage sound like a step in the quadrille of social advancement,” Stephen said. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be. And stop dawdling. My latest knee brace is the best of the lot so far, but I think ball bearings will improve it further still.”

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