There was a crack as the wax seal broke, and Iffley cleared his throat. “There has indeed been some mistake, sir,” he said, relief ringing in his voice. “Belying the envelope, the salutation is not addressed to you.”
But Thorn had the same warning feeling that led him to sell stocks when he met a business owner who was just a trifle too jovial, or one whose teeth shone in the candlelight. “It’s addressed to Juby,” he said, resigned.
Juby was his pre-rescue name, the name of a mudlark who had lived in the rough and scavenged in the Thames. Juby was, and was not, Mr. Tobias Dautry, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers. And he was, and was not, Thorn Dautry, an extraordinarily wealthy bastard who owned six factories, a couple of houses, and now a country estate.
Now Thorn looked down with a pulse of sadness at the child huddled in his lap. Presumably, another of his band of boys had died. There had been seven mudlarks slaving under Grindel—a rapacious, brutish master—when Villiers had located Thorn. He had been taken to his father’s country estate, and the duke had dispatched the other boys to good homes. Grindel had gone to prison.
Even so, Fillibert had died that first year of a blood infection. Barty had gotten in a fight, struck his head on a cobblestone, and had never woken again. Rattles was gone the following year. After that, there had been five left, including himself.
There was an enduring bond between them, forged from surviving Grindel’s cruelty, from risking death in the Thames, from coming close to starvation and frostbite more times than he cared to remember. Yet the only boy with whom he’d become true friends was Will Summers. Like Thorn, Will was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, though his father had never acknowledged his baseborn son.
When they were lads, Will had hair like a duckling’s fuzz, an odd yellow that would fluff up in the sunlight after they emerged, shivering, from the Thames, their hands full of scavenged treasures like silver spoons and human teeth—whatever they could find and, more to the point, whatever their master could sell. Will was the stubborn one, persistent to the point of madness, diving into the murkiest water to chase a flash of silver.
Iffley cleared his throat again. “It is indeed addressed to ‘Juby,’ and signed ‘William Summers.’ The handwriting is unclear, and it has apparently been exposed to water. It begins, ‘If you’re reading this, I’ve lost . . .’ but the latter half of the sentence is indecipherable. Something about the child follows. Her mother is apparently dead, then something about the Americas.” He tipped the letter sideways and squinted. “It seems her mother died during her birth.”
After Thorn, Will was the best educated: he had won a place at King’s, and thereafter had gone into the militia. Which made it only more surprising that his daughter was alarmingly thin and distinctly unclean. She had an odd smell about her, like the inside of a tobacco pouch.
“What is her name?” Thorn asked.
“It notes without reference to a proper name that his wife’s sister lives in Virginia, in America. At least—” He caught himself.
Thorn gave him a grim smile. “The child is orphaned but not illegitimate, for which we must all offer hosannas. I was at the wedding, Iffley. It took place at St. Andrew’s, with a lashing of ceremonial rigmarole. But I was asking for her name, not her aunt’s.”
The girl’s thin back hunched, like a bird putting its head under a wing. She was listening, though she chose not to enter the conversation.
The butler squinted at the letter again. “I don’t see a name. From what I see here, you are the guardian and may choose to send the child to America if you wish. There’s a bit in here about a silver teapot. Or the top to a silver teapot, which doesn’t make any sense, followed by the name of his solicitor. I regret to say that the missive is abusive in nature. Summers addresses Juby as a ‘fusty nut.’ I believe he also says that he himself is ‘ignorant as dirt,’ but it could be that Juby is the object of that invective as well. And that’s the entirety of the note.”
Thorn nodded. “Send a message to my solicitor asking him to find out what happened to Will Summers, member of the militia located in Meryton. And ask Mrs. Stella to attend me.” He tightened his arms around Will’s daughter and said gently, into her ear, “Will you please tell me your name?”
The child burst into tears. Thorn sighed and stood up, scooping her into his arms. He hitched her a bit higher and followed Iffley into the entry. Frederick stood against the wall. “I gather you accepted this special delivery, Fred?”
“Was a trunk delivered at the same time?”
“No, sir. And the driver took off so quickly that I scarcely had a look at him.”
Mrs. Stella burst through the servants’ door, ribbons streaming from her cap. His housekeeper had gravity about her, a quality of being bound to the earth by more than the weight of her sturdy form. “Well, who’s this?” she asked. “Could it be I see a wee one in need of a bath?”
There was one more sob, and the girl’s head shook in violent refusal.
“How about a bowl of porridge?”
“I’ve always found that cake is very cheering,” Thorn remarked.
Mrs. Stella sighed in an exaggerated way. “Well, if you say so, sir. Cake it shall be.” And she held out her arms.
“Cake,” Thorn repeated. “Mrs. Stella is a very nice woman, and the cake can only be found in her part of the house.”
It took a moment, but the girl raised her head. “I can walk.”
“You may have cake only if you tell me your name.”
“My papa named me Rose,” she said, her voice wavering for a moment.
Thorn put her down and she went to Mrs. Stella, stopping to look up at her. “I don’t, in the general course of things, like to be carried,” she said, her voice piping but quite clear.
Mrs. Stella smiled and said, “You will have no argument from me. I shouldn’t like to be carried myself.” They set off through the servants’ door, Thorn frowning after them. Will’s daughter had a most peculiar manner. As if she were ninety years old and a dowager duchess to boot.
He’d be damned if he’d ship Rose off to America. His father had misplaced all his illegitimate children after consigning them to the care of an unscrupulous solicitor. No, if the aunt wanted Rose, she would have to come to England and fetch her.
But what the devil was he to do with the girl until her aunt arrived, even supposing they could find the woman? Rose couldn’t live in his house, no matter how birdlike and—
Thorn went back to his desk and sat down before the design for his rubber band. Even as he worked, though, he couldn’t stop thinking about Rose. At length he realized that the easiest solution was to give her to his stepmother, Eleanor. It would hardly matter if the ton believed that the Duke of Villiers had spawned yet another bastard.
In fact, he could ask her directly; he had just time enough to stop by his father’s town house before meeting Vander for supper. He’d gone straight to his study from a vigorous ride and he smelled like the stables, so he went upstairs to his bedchamber and rang for his valet.
An hour later, he was bathed and had shrugged on a coat as elegant as any the Duke of Villiers had worn. The choice had nothing to do with the way Lady Xenobia’s lip had curled when she’d looked him over.