This Duchess of Mine Page 67


“He don’t want that,” Grindel said, hooting. “Ain’t you gonna tell him, then, Duke?”

Villiers cast him a glance and Grindel shut his mouth.

“You’re my son,” Villiers said. “I’m taking you home. I’ll send the others where they’ll be clean and well-cared for.”

Tobias didn’t say a word. Villiers felt a creeping amusement, and, to his surprise, even a streak of pride. He couldn’t have known what to expect in response to that announcement, but he would have loathed an excited shriek of “Papa!”

Instead, Tobias silently looked at Villiers’s white-streaked hair, then at his rose-colored coat. His eyes lingered on the elaborate embroidery of yellow roses around the buttonholes, slid lower to his perfectly-fitted pantaloons, then to his boots, now slightly scuffed from toppling Grindel’s baskets.

Tobias’s glance might have shown some approval of his sword stick, but it wasn’t hard to read the utter distaste in his eyes for the rest.

“Are you certain of your claim?” he said finally, as proud as if any man would be lucky to claim a filthy, odiferous boy nicknamed Juby as his offspring.

One might not wish for an exuberant display of filial excitement, but rank disappointment wasn’t what Villiers would have envisioned either.

“Don’t be a fool,” Grindel cut in. “You’re the spitting image of the bloody-minded bastard, and it’s bastard you’ll be called from now on, and rightly so.”

“Better the bastard of a duke than a bastard by nature,” Villiers said. He kicked a surfeit of teeth and buttons from under his feet and strode over to the desk. The family reunion was over, and he had one final piece of business to attend to.

Grindel inched back in his greasy chair.

“My son has a bruise under his eye,” Villiers said. For the first time he heard his own voice—its measured—cold tones, and knew it to be a more mature version of that which he’d just heard. He had passed on his most useful trait.

“Could be he got in a tussle with the boys,” Grindel said, slanting an eye toward Tobias. Grindel knew as well as Villiers did that the boy would never tattle about an injury. He wasn’t the type.

Villiers sighed inwardly. His gloves were immaculate, or at least they had been that morning…

Grindel went over in a crash, taking two more baskets with him to the floor. He let out a squeal like a stuck pig from behind his desk. A final basket teetered, then tipped to its side. A torrent of silver spoons poured forth, the fruit of the boys’ labors in the river and sewers.

When he turned about, the door was thronged with boys. Five, maybe six of them, staring silently. They were as dirty as newly-pulled radishes and their thin legs were marked with scars.

Grindel groaned from the floor but didn’t seem disposed to move.

“Someone take that basket and pick up all those spoons,” Villiers said. “There’s another collection of spoons on the floor there.”

“And the silver buttons,” Tobias said, without even the slightest flicker of an eyelash to show appreciation for the blow to Grindel.

“Take them,” Villiers said. “They’ll pay for apprenticeships for you lot,” he told the boys.

They didn’t seem to understand, but Tobias scooped the spoons back into their basket with a few swift movements and thrust them at a boy. “Go!” The other basket of spoons, a box of silver buttons, and a third box with a lid, were out of the room before Grindel managed to lumber to his feet. “Here you!” he roared. “What’s happening to me stuff?”

To Villiers’s satisfaction, Grindel’s right eye was fast swelling shut. “You’re thieving from me! You’re nothing more than a fleagler, duke or no. I’ll have the constables on you!”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Villiers said softly.

“You’ll find some other way to make a living. I’ll be watching, and if I ever hear that a boy has set foot on these premises again, I’ll have it burned down. With or without you,” he added dispassionately.

“I see the resemblance,” Grindel spat.

“You do me an honor,” Villiers said. Then he said, “That last was for my son. This one is for the rest of them.” And his fist smashed into Grindel’s other eye. Over he went, and this time Villiers strode out without pausing.

“Where’s the injured boy?” he asked.

Tobias gestured toward a boy lying on the side of the street. Blood was running sullenly from a dirty cloth wound around his foot.

Villiers jerked his chin at the groom standing by his carriage. “Pick up this boy and carry him to the nearest surgeon. Then get a hackney and take him to Mrs. Jobber, in Whitechapel. The coachman knows the street.”

Then he turned to the five remaining boys. Tobias stood in front of them, shoulders back, chin raised. He had a defiant look in his eye.

Villiers gestured at one of his footmen. “Find a hackney and take this lot to Mrs. Jobber. Get the address from the coachman. Beg my forgiveness, but ask her to wash and clothe them, as best she can. I’ll set Ashmole to finding an appropriate school for them immediately. And give these to Mrs. Jobber.” He gave him a handful of guineas.

“A school,” one of the boys muttered, his eyes bugging out.

Tobias seemed to relax a bit. “We’ll do well there,” he said. Adding, rather reluctantly, “sir.”

“I’m not a sir,” Villiers said. “You may address me as Your Grace.” He sounded like a pompous fool. “And you’re not going to Mrs. Jobber’s house, Tobias. You’re coming with me.”

Tobias’s face didn’t change even a whit. “No. And my name is Juby.”

“Your name is Tobias. You are my son, and you’re coming home with me.”

“I will live with Mrs. Jobber. I will not live with you.” His lip curled. The boys were watching, slackjawed.

Villiers thought for a moment about the advisability of designating Tobias to his remaining footman. It pained him to think of all that mud—to give it a charitable label—in his coach. But a hackney and a footman didn’t seem right. It would put Tobias in the wrong footing in the household, though he’d be damned if he knew what that footing should be.

“You will enter the carriage now,” he stated.

“No.”

There was nothing for it. His gloves were already a dead loss, and now the rose-colored coat was going the same way. With one economical movement Villiers picked up the boy and slung him over his shoulder.

The footman whipped open the carriage door, and Villiers tossed him in. Then he followed, slamming the door behind him.

The boy pulled himself upright instantly and sat there, uncompromising eyes fixed on Villiers’s face.

Villiers saw no reason to continue the conversation. He sat down opposite and peeled off his ruined gloves.

There were two things going through his mind. One was the wretched realization that he had five children left to find. And the second was that he needed a wife.

Now.

Perhaps a woman would know how to talk to a younger version of himself. He certainly didn’t.

He needed a wife today, or tomorrow at the latest.

Chapter Twenty-eight

Dr. William Withering had a terrible cough. Elijah and Jemma entered his anteroom only to hear, from the inner chamber, the truly distressing sounds of someone gasping and coughing at the same time.

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