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Anything but a Gentleman (Rescued from Ruin #7)
Author:Elisa Braden

Anything but a Gentleman (Rescued from Ruin #7)

Elisa Braden



CHAPTER ONE

“If you must speak like a night soil man, at least choose one vulgar pattern rather than several. Your particular blend of London dockworker and Cumberland rustic may be comprehensible to lowborn ruffians, but it tries the nerves of those with superior breeding.” —The Dowager Marchioness of Wallingham to Mr. Elijah Kilbrenner in a letter explaining the merits of proper diction.



October 26, 1819

London



“I keep it? The whole lot.” Thick, dark grime upon the boy’s face failed to mask his skepticism. He snorted and adjusted his cap. The hat was, if anything, filthier than the boy himself. “Gammon, that.” He aimed a grimy thumb over his shoulder at the unusually large fellow standing guard at a door across the mews. “Ee’s like to crush me ’ead betwixt his fingers. Worse. Bugger me.” The boy spit on the cobblestones. “That why ye say I can keep it all? Aye. Ye aim to sell me arse. Lady, I might be a rum diver, but I ain’t no—”

Although she’d comprehended approximately half of the boy’s diatribe, Augusta Widmore stopped him with a tsk. “The terms of our agreement have not changed since we first discussed them. You may keep the coin I give you and you may keep whatever you … obtain from Mr. Duff.” She straightened and gazed her challenge down at the grimy youth. “Provided you are as swift and skilled as you claim.”

Glittering, cynical eyes narrowed. “Nobody better.”

She managed to translate the second word—“beh-ah”—from the context of their conversation, but his speech was swift and vulgar, his accent a series of stunted grunts and coiling vowels. A different language, really. No one spoke this way in Hampshire. No one of her acquaintance, at any rate.

How she longed to return. A fortnight in London was more than sufficient to send her fleeing back to her tiny cottage with its rustling chestnut trees and scent of beeswax.


She raised her chin. “A bold claim. It would seem you have some proving to do.”

He sniffed and glared over his shoulder. “Ee catches me, I want double.”

“No.”

“’Aff now, ’aff later. Double, like I said.”

“And I said no. You made a promise. I expect you to honor it, as I will mine.”

He snorted rudely.

“Something in your throat, perhaps?”

The boy mumbled and shifted, casting dubious glances in Mr. Duff’s direction. With a neck that showed no discernable narrowing from a sizable head, the guard at the back door of the gaming club was an intimidating sight. Augusta understood the boy’s hesitation. If Mr. Duff caught him, his fate might be dire, indeed.

She inched past the wheel of the cart they stood behind, taking care to pull her skirts clear of a malodorous pile before sidling closer to the boy. “He is large, yes.”

Another snort. “Aye, lady. That ’ee is.”

“His size will make him slow.”

The boy swallowed and gave a jerky nod.

“Be certain he notices. Be certain he follows you.”

A deep sigh shuddered from a chest that was far too thin.

She gritted her teeth and smothered her conscience. It must be done. “And, boy?”

“Aye?”

“Be certain he does not catch you.”

The boy pulled his hat tighter on his head, hitched up rough, dirty breeches, and swiped at his nose with a grimy wrist. “Aye.” The single syllable cracked in the middle.

She nearly stopped him. Nearly reached out to grasp the bony arm, but he’d already moved away, crossing the cobblestones into the shadow of red bricks and dark timbers.

Augusta castigated herself for her moment of weakness. Sympathy for pickpockets? She could ill afford such softheaded rubbish.

Watching the boy dart between a departing delivery wagon and a stack of wine barrels, she moved around the rear of the cart, struggling to draw a full breath without gagging.

Good heavens. Even in one of the cleanest, wealthiest parts of town, the filth was staggering. Again, she thought of her Hampshire cottage. The gated garden where she grew mint and rosemary. The little parlor with its tidy hearth. The bookcase stocked with what remained of her father’s books.

She would kiss every inch of beeswax-polished wood when she returned. But for now, she would remain in London and do what must be done. For Phoebe’s sake.

Everything was for Phoebe’s sake. It always had been.

As Mr. Duff shouted an order at one of the gaming club’s grooms, and the wagon rattled out of sight into the alley that led onto St. James, the busy mews began to quiet. It was a pattern she’d noted over the past week—this hour of the morning, fewer patrons came and went, and Mr. Duff could often be found alone at the service entrance.

Now was her best chance.

A shadow slunk between two barrels and crouched beside the wooden steps leading up to the door.

The boy was good. Small and quick. He would complete his task without being caught, Augusta assured herself. And if he did not, if Mr. Duff tried to hurt him …

Her eyes darted to a long, iron pry bar lying on the rim of the cart.

Well, she could not allow him to be injured. She prayed the boy was as stealthy as he’d claimed.

“Ey! What the devil? Come ’ere, ye little thief!”

The boy ducked a giant, swiping paw, sprang sideways, and sprinted past the stable. Mr. Duff lumbered after him with heavy thuds and a string of insults for the boy’s parentage. As they passed Augusta’s position and headed toward the alley, Mr. Duff’s long strides closed the distance between them. They turned the corner and disappeared.

She listened, struggling to hear past her quickened breaths and pounding heart. No squeals from the boy. No sounds of thrashing.

She shot a glance at the wooden steps and unguarded door.

Now, Augusta. Now.

She rushed across the mews, making no attempt to hide. Speed was more important. She had to get inside before Mr. Duff returned.

She climbed the steps, nearly tripping herself on her own petticoats. Grasping the knob, she twisted and stumbled inside. Leaned back against the door. Blinked. Breathed. Examined her surroundings—or tried to, at least. It was dark. She was in a long passage, she thought, but there was little light.

Straightening, she listened. In the distance, she heard servants chattering. Masculine laughter. A feminine taunt. Footsteps.

She smelled … something delicious. Onions and roasting meat. Yeasty bread. A wine sauce of some sort.

Her stomach growled. She hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks.

As her eyes accustomed to the dark, she spotted an opening off the corridor. If her information was correct, she needed to locate the service stairs and make her way up three floors. A clank sounded. A man shouted a curse. She darted ahead and ducked blindly into the opening.

And halted.

A maid descended the stairs, her gray skirts swinging, her steps brisk and cheerful. The girl’s arms were piled high with linens, so her attention was on her feet.