After seven long years, Griffin Steele was a sinner’s breath away from casting off the millstone around his neck, the one that dragged at the few shreds of decency in his dark soul.
“I trust everything is to your specifications,” said Madeline Reeves in her smoothly seductive tones. “Lizzie, Rebecca, and I went over the terms quite carefully, and I believe we’ve done a more than adequate job of addressing your concerns.” Her full-lipped smile offset any hint of criticism that her words might have conveyed.
Griffin glanced up from the document to the woman who managed his brothel and who had once graced his bed. Madeline was a statuesque beauty, dark-haired and sloe-eyed, with a languid sensuality that masked a keen business mind and a card-sharp’s instincts. She was also, despite her profession, thoroughly decent and one of the few people Griffin had elected to trust in his life.
He responded to her challenge with a nod. “I know the terms seem more demanding than are justified, given our relationship. I also know you see the reason for it.” He allowed the document to settle with a whisper of fluttering parchment onto his desk. “Am I wrong?”
Madeline’s smile tilted up at one corner in wry understanding. “No, you’re not wrong. You’re never wrong, are you?”
Griffin had to repress a bitter laugh, covering the emotion her remark had engendered with a languid smile. “My dear, you flatter me, but I trust you see the reasoning behind my insistence on your ability to meet my terms. At least in this particular instance.”
“I do.” Madeline’s lovely features shifted ever so slightly, transforming her from one of London’s most sought-after courtesans into a canny businesswoman. “If we could not demonstrate our ability to manage The Golden Tie according to your terms, then we would never be able to maintain our financial independence and treat the girls with a modicum of decency. I know how important that is to you.”
She leaned forward to place a hand on the polished countertop of his Chippendale desk, her burgundy gown, beautifully tailored to showcase her magnificent figure, rustling with the soft slide of expensive silk. “I won’t let anything happen to the girls, Griffin. You have my word.”
“I know I do, and I am grateful to you.”
He was, too. Madeline and her new partners—all women who worked in his brothel—were a key part of his plan to achieve his freedom.
Griffin had long wanted to shed The Golden Tie. He’d only saddled himself with it because he’d been unable to tolerate the brutal treatment meted out to the girls by the brothel’s former owner—a foul excuse for a man named Paulson. The pig had done nothing to protect the girls from disease, pregnancy, and beatings from the customers. The man had, unfortunately, also owned The Cormorant, the first gaming house Griffin had acquired and the foundation of his wealth and influence. Though Griffin had only wanted the gaming house, he’d found himself taking the brothel on, as well.
Not that he was a saint. He’d taken full financial advantage of the opportunity—on his terms, of course—but now he was eager to rid himself of a responsibility he’d never wanted. Too often, in the years since he’d arrived in London, he’d seen the ruination of women, mistreated and then discarded by the sorts of men who frequented establishments like The Golden Tie. His own mother had suffered a similar fate. Griffin’s father had the bluest blood in the land, but to his mind the man was less than a scraping of mud from a bootjack.
“Griffin, is something wrong?” The keen understanding in Madeline’s eyes jogged him even more than her words.
Waving a negligent hand, Griffin rose to his feet to signal an end to their interview. “Not in the least, my dear. I’ll have my solicitor look the papers over later today, but I’m sure everything is in order. We should be able to sign off in a few days.” With a smile, he rounded the desk to offer Madeline his hand. “I wish you the best of luck, Mad. I know you’ll make a go of it.”
She rose with the sinuous grace that had entranced so many. Madeline was tall, enough so that she could almost look him straight in the eye.
“Would you, perhaps, like to celebrate the completion of our deal?” she purred, her velvet-brown gaze glittering with satisfaction and invitation. “Once more for old times’ sake?”
Her voice brushed along his nerves, pleasantly arousing. At one time, Griffin would have responded to that siren call with alacrity. But he’d left Madeline’s bed months ago, as much from a growing ennui as a reluctance to mix business and pleasure. For a moment, he allowed himself to consider the invitation, knowing that Madeline would be more than willing to do all the work. But then that dark, dissatisfied part of him that had been pushing so hard of late, the part driving him to step far away from his current life, reasserted itself. He didn’t have to say a word, either. Madeline, ever sensitive to his emotional nuance, saw the answer on his face.
“Ah, well,” she said, not sounding all that disappointed. “I thought not. Truly, Griffin, you are turning into a monk. We haven’t seen you next door in three nights. I do hope you don’t intend to take yourself off to some dreary mountaintop in Scotland, or hole up in a ridiculous hermitage on one of your uncles’ estates.” She let her gaze drift down over his body. “That would be such a waste.”
He grinned at her. “Now, you’re simply flattering me, and you know I’m immune to that sort of thing.”
She was about to retort when a quick knock on the door cut her off. Before Griffin could call out permission to enter, Tom Deacon opened the door and barreled into the room.
Griffin raised his eyebrows in a pointed question. His business manager might be several inches taller and outweigh him by three stone, but Tom knew better than to charge into his office without permission. Combined with the scowl on the man’s blunt features, it suggested that something had disturbed his normally unflappable right-hand.
Tom came to a halt in front of the desk, practically stepping on Griffin’s toes. The space was small enough that Madeline had to sit down in order to avoid getting squashed between the two men.
Griffin’s office, once the room from which he’d managed the gaming hell that had graced this part of Jermyn Street, wasn’t large. He’d closed The Cormorant only a few months ago, converting the building back to its original use as a private dwelling, but he’d seen no point in moving his office to a more spacious room upstairs. From here, Griffin could still monitor the comings and goings in his household and the brothel next door, connected by a small, conveniently placed passageway right outside his office door. Tom’s bulky form and his obvious agitation filled the room, making the walls seem to close in.
Sighing, Griffin moved around to the other side of his desk and waited. Tom was a man of few words to begin with, and it rarely served to push him. But after several seconds of watching Tom’s jaw tick under the impact of some obviously perturbing stimulus, Griffin finally lost his patience.
“Are we going to stand here like a pair of chawbacons, or are you going to tell me why you’re so disturbed?” Griffin asked with some asperity.
Tom’s jaw worked again, as if chewing over a gristly piece of mutton, but he finally spit words out. “It’s a baby. A baby in the entrance hall.”
Griffin’s mind blanked for a second. “A baby?” he repeated, sounding rather like a chawbacon after all. “In my house?”
Some of the girls did occasionally succumb to that particular hazard of the profession, but Griffin always set them up off the premises. Babies weren’t exactly good for this sort of business.
Tom unleashed a grim smile. “Aye. And, apparently, it’s yours.”
Griffin strode down the hallway toward the front of the house.
“If there’s one thing you can be sure of,” he snapped over his shoulder at Tom, “it’s that this baby is not mine. I’ve been very careful with that sort of thing, I assure you.” Given his lamentable parentage he’d be damned if he spread his seed around with such careless abandon.
“I’m just telling you what the boy who brought him said,” Tom retorted. “I’m not sayin’ it’s true, am I?”
“I should bloody well hope not,” Griffin muttered. Even so, he couldn’t help counting in his head, thinking of whose bed he’d been warming about nine months ago. A few moments of rapid reflection confirmed what he’d thought. He’d been sleeping with only Madeline back then, and he’d sure as hell had not gotten her with child.
Still, some enterprising or desperate woman might try to pin the charge on him, hoping to squeeze him for money. Griffin’s reputation when it came to matters of a sexual nature was exaggerated. He was more discriminating than anyone gave him credit for, unlike Prinny and some of his other royal uncles who couldn’t seem to resist an attractive bit of tail to save their lives. Griffin also made a point of never sleeping with a woman whilst in his cups. He’d learned early on that losing control of oneself only led to trouble. On the few occasions when he did indulge in drink, he generally did it in private, or with the few people he trusted to have his back.
He pushed through the baize door and into the entrance hall. A moment later he practically skidded to a halt, with Tom almost ramming him in the back.
There was a baby, all right. It was wrapped in a white blanket, resting in a commodious straw basket, which someone had plopped into the middle of the tiled hall. Griffin couldn’t actually see the infant from where he stood, but he could hear its woeful crying. Its thin wail climbed up into a higher register, rapidly transforming into a lusty, keening lament that bounced off the plastered walls to make everyone wince.
“Nothin’ wrong with that set of lungs,” Tom observed in a sour voice.
Griffin resisted the impulse to jam his fingers in his ears as he inspected the other stranger. A small boy of not more than ten years of age, clearly a street urchin, stood by the basket, shifting uncomfortably as he rolled his ratty cap between nervous fingers. Hovering behind the boy with a pained look on his narrow features was Phelps, Griffin’s man-servant and factotum.
“What the hell is going on?” Griffin asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the wailing. “Phelps, why in God’s name would you let these brats into the house.”
“Couldn’t really stop the boy, Mr. Griffin,” Phelps said with a helpless shrug. “He slipped right under my arm before I could say nary a word.”
Griffin turned to the urchin. Despite his scruffy appearance, intelligence gleamed in the lad’s eyes, along with a wary curiosity. Nor could he fail to note the way the child’s gaze jumped from point to point, obviously taking in the highly polished wall sconces and the brass hardware on the doors.
“Don’t even think about it,” Griffin said in a dry voice.
The boy’s eyes widened in an imitation of innocence. “Got no idea what you’re talking about, guv.”
“I’m fairly sure you do. Now, tell me who you are and why you brought this child into my establishment.”
Just then, the baby’s cry kicked up to a deafening level. Tom actually did stuff his fingers in his ears.
“Hellfire and damnation, Phelps,” Griffin exclaimed. “Pick the child up and keep it quiet. I can barely think with that racket going on.”
Phelps, a wiry, capable man who once owned a rough-and-tumble pub in Covent Garden, backed away, putting up his hands as if warding off an attack. “Sorry, sir. I’m afraid I’ll drop it. Never did go in much for babies.”
“Phelps, you raised a daughter, remember? She works in this very house. Surely you held her on more than one occasion,” Griffin replied, exasperated.
“Aye, and I loves her like my life, but I didn’t much enjoy holding her, neither. Not when she squalled like that.”
“Pro’lly just needs its nappy changed,” observed the boy with the trenchant wisdom of one who had younger siblings.
Griffin turned to Tom, who backed right up to the baize door looking even more panicked than Phelps.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Griffin muttered.
He crouched down beside the basket. It had been years since he’d held a baby, but he supposed he’d not lost the knack of it. Growing up in his uncle’s vicarage in the wilds of Yorkshire, he’d spent many a lonely afternoon in the kitchen with the housekeeper, Mrs. Patterson, a kind woman and the closest thing to a mother Griffin had known in those days. She’d had an inexhaustible supply of grandchildren, and she’d sometimes enlisted his help when she had to take care of one or another of the brood. Without any siblings of his own, Griffin had never minded. He’d spent many a bleak winter’s day by the fire, rocking a fractious baby to sleep while Mrs. Patterson bustled about with her cooking.
“Now, what’s all the fuss about,” he murmured as he carefully peeled the soft blanket away. A very red, unhappy face peered up at him, its mouth pursed with infant outrage. The baby sucked in a breath and waved its little fists in the air, obviously preparing to let out another wail of complaint, so Griffin quickly slipped his hands under the small body and lifted, standing upright in the same motion.
“Here, none of that,” he said in quiet voice as he shifted the child to rest more comfortably against his chest.
The baby’s cry wavered and then abruptly cut off, replaced by several rather shattering sobs that sounded more like a case of the hiccups. Tears clung to its dark eyelashes and it still looked miserable in that heart-rending way of babies. But at least it had stopped lacerating their ears.
“Huh,” grunted Tom, inching cautiously forward, as if fearing the baby might leap up and bite him. “Never took you for the motherly sort.”
“It’s not exactly advanced mathematics,” Griffin said before turning his attention back to the lad who’d delivered such an unusual package. “What’s your name?”
“Roger. What’s yours?” the boy asked with a nervy curiosity that put Griffin in mind of a squirrel.
“Griffin Steele, at your service. Now, perhaps you’d like to tell me what this is all about.”
Roger gave a satisfied nod. “You’re the nob I was supposed to find. I’ve got a message for you.”
“I’m not a nob,” Griffin replied automatically. If there was one thing in the world he did not want to be taken for, it was an aristocrat.
Roger glanced around the hall and then raised his eyebrows, investing the look with a polite skepticism that would not have been out of place in the finest drawing rooms of the ton.
Griffin sighed. “Well, get on with it then. Who’s trying to dump this baby on me and claim that I’m its—” He broke off, shaking his head. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
The boy lifted his shoulders in an insouciant shrug. “Beats me, guv.”
Muttering under his breath, Griffin gently pulled up the infant’s lace-trimmed robe and gingerly inched aside his swaddled undergarment. He couldn’t fail to notice the clothing was fashioned of the finest lawn, nor that the matching cap was trimmed with lace.
“A boy,” he said, hastily tucking the material back around the obviously well-fed body.
Everyone in the hall seemed to let out a collective sigh, as if they’d all been dying to know the answer.
“Now that we’ve ascertained that pertinent fact, perhaps you can tell me what you’re doing with him, and why you brought him here,” Griffin said, gazing sternly at Roger.
The boy opened his mouth to answer, but the words died on his tongue when the green baize door swung open and Madeline swept into the hall in all her sultry glory. Roger’s gobsmacked expression was one that Griffin had seen on much older faces more times than he could count.
He cuffed the boy on the shoulder. “None of that. You’re much too young to even be looking.”
Madeline rustled across the hall to join them. “Goodness, is this little one truly yours, Griffin?”
“No,” he replied, trying not to growl with irritation. “But if everyone will kindly stop interrupting me, I might be able to find out who hedoes belong to.”
Madeline was staring at the baby with a surprisingly maternal look on her face. “Well, he seems very sweet.” She gently stroked the now-drowsy baby’s rounded cheek.
“Good, then you can hold him.” Griffin swiftly transferred the baby into her arms. She looked startled, but accepted the burden without protest.
“Now, you were about to say?” he prompted Roger.
“I haven’t a clue who the brat is, Mr. Steele,” the lad said. “Never saw him before a half hour ago. A lady said she’d pay me a ‘’alf a quid if I delivered him here, and waited to make sure you got him.”
Griffin blinked at the ridiculous sum the boy had been offered. “Did she say why?”
“Nah. Just said I was to deliver the basket straight to you and no one else. She was right certain about that. Said you, and only you.” Roger scratched his dirt-smudged nose, looking thoughtful. “Figured you must be the kid’s dad, she was that insistent.”
“Then she didn’t actually say I was the boy’s father.”
“Come to think of it, no.”
“And how were you to get paid for this little errand? Were you to meet her afterward?” Surely this mystery woman would not be so foolish as to pay a street urchin before he performed his allotted task. If she hadn’t, then Griffin could use the boy to track her down.
Roger gave him a gape-toothed, knowing grin, obviously comprehending exactly what Griffin was thinking. “Sorry, Mr. Steele. The lady already paid me. She walked me right up to your door and said she’d wait outside while I went in.”
After a moment’s surprise, Griffin exploded into action, bolting across the hall and yanking the door open. He ran down the few steps onto Jermyn Street, fairly quiet this early in the day. A few carts lumbered down the street and several plainly dressed persons, probably servants, hurried about their business. Griffin cast a swift glance in both directions, but the only possible lead to the mystery woman was an enclosed black landau that was bowling swiftly down the cobblestones to round the corner only a second later.
Cursing, he strode back into the house. “What did the woman look like? Did she come in a carriage?” he rapped out.
“Don’t know. She wore a veil,” came the clipped answer from Roger.
“And what about the carriage?”
The boy gave a nod. “Aye. She found me in Piccadilly. We rode to the top of the street, and then we got out and walked the rest of the way with the baby.” He looked thoughtful. “Wondered why we just didn’t drive up to your doorstep.”
“I imagine she didn’t want anyone looking out the window and sighting her carriage,” Griffin replied, feeling more frustrated by the moment. Whoever the mystery woman was, she’d taken great care to hide her identity while at the same time making sure the baby was safe.
“Did you notice anything particular about the carriage?” Madeline asked the boy after casting a worried glance at Griffin. “A crest on the side, or unusual markings?”
“It was black.”
Griffin pinched the space between his eyebrows. “Thank you for that trenchant observation. Anything else?”
Another careless shrug of the boy’s bony shoulders was the only answer.
“Too smitten with the blunt that lady gave you to pay attention to anything else, I reckon,” Tom said with sarcasm.
“I reckon you’re right,” Roger replied with a grin. “Can you blame me?”
“No, I suppose not,” Griffin said. “And you’re sure you never saw this woman before?”
“And there’s nothing else you remember.”
Roger blinked rapidly several times, which seemed to aid the process of extracting a final bit of information from his brain.
“Aye, she did. She said to make sure you read the note in the basket, and not to lose the ring, neither.”
Griffin hunkered down beside the basket and rummaged through the blankets. They were of white wool, soft and well-made, finished with satin ribbon. Like the baby’s clothes, they were scrupulously clean and obviously expensive. It appeared that someone cared a great deal about this infant.
He fished out a folded note, sealed with red wax. He tucked it into the waistband of his breeches and continued his search, digging through the blankets until he got to the bottom of the basket. Finally, he extracted a small, black velvet bag cinched shut with a drawstring. He untied it and upended the contents into his palm.
A ring rolled out. A heavy signet ring, worked in thick gold and with an intricate design carved into its face. Griffin slowly straightened up as he examined it.
Tom let out a thoughtful whistle. “That cost more than a bob,” he said, leaning close to inspect it. “What do you figure the markings for?”
Griffin held it up, trying to catch the light coming in through the arch window over the front door. “It looks to be a family coat of arms, maybe Italian. I can’t be precisely sure until I get it under a magnifying glass.”
“How do you know its Italian?” asked Phelps in a hushed voice, as if someone might overhear them.
Griffin glanced around. The little group in the hall had inched closer, eagerly straining to see the ring and obviously caught up in the bizarre drama. Even Roger seemed enthralled, creeping close to gaze at the heavy piece of jewelry. Or so Griffin thought, until he felt a flutter of movement near the back of his coat.
“I don’t think so.” He grabbed Roger by the wrist and pulled the boy in front of him. “You’ve already picked enough pockets today.”
The boy let out a dramatic sigh. “Can’t blame me for trying, guv.”
“Oh, yes we can,” barked Tom, seizing the boy’s shoulder and propelling him toward the front door. “To think you would try to fleece Griffin Steele, of all people. If you don’t have anything more to tell us, you little blighter, you can be on your way.”
Tom glanced at Griffin, silently asking permission.
“One more thing,” Griffin added. “Roger, if you ever see this veiled woman again, I want you to follow her until she arrives at her destination, and then come report to me.” Not much hope of that happening, but he might as well cover off every eventuality he could.
He nodded at Tom, who fished a shilling out of his pocket and gave it to the boy.
“There will be more of that if you come to me with useful information,” Griffin said.
Roger tipped his threadbare cap, gave them one last gape-toothed grin, and slipped out the door.
“Open the note,” Madeline prompted as she gently bounced the baby up and down in her arms.
Griffin glanced at the expectant faces of his staff. “Everyone loves a mystery,” he murmured, shaking his head. He didn’t. He hated mysteries and all the drama that came with them.
He slipped the ring into a pocket and then extracted the small note from the waistband of his breeches. The paper was heavy, obviously of good quality. Slipping his finger under the wax, he gently peeled open the note. The handwriting was clear and feminine, and the message contained only a few lines.
The child’s name is Stephen. His life is in grave danger. I beg you, Mr. Steele, to keep him safe until I contact you again. May God bless you!
Naturally, the note lacked any other identifying marks. That would have been far too easy.
“What does it say?” asked Tom with a curiosity he rarely displayed.
“That the baby’s name is Stephen and that we are to keep him safe until further notice,” Griffin said, repressing the impulse to curse.
“Well, that’s a right proper mystery, ain’t it, Mr. Griffin?” said Phelps in a voice of wonder. Clearly a mystery that Griffin’s employees found quite enjoyable. He didn’t share the feeling.
“It is,” he replied in a grim voice. “Phelps, I want you to find Sir Dominic Hunter. I don’t care if you have to drag him out of his damn office in Whitehall or from the deepest pits of hell, but do not come back here without him.”