Her voice contained an edge of apprehension, and her gaze swept over him with a possessive concern that made his heart knock hard in his chest. Nick struggled to understand what those signs meant. It almost seemed as if she was worried for him, that his safety mattered to her. She had never looked at him that way before, and he was not certain how to react.
Carefully he reached out and pulled her from the chair, settling her on his lap. "Nothing dangerous at all," he said against the softness of her cheek. Intoxicated by the taste of her skin, he worked his way to her ear and touched the delicate lobe with the tip of his tongue. "I would hardly risk coming home to you in less than full working order."
Lottie squirmed in his lap, and the movement drew a surge of heat to his loins. "Where are you and Mr. Sayer going to meet?" she persisted.
Ignoring the question, Nick ran his hand over the bodice of her morning dress, made of a soft white fabric printed with tiny flowers and leaves. The scooped neckline revealed the tender line of her throat, presenting a temptation too potent to resist. Lowering his mouth to her neck, he kissed her sweet, downy skin, while his hand stole beneath the rustling layers of her skirts.
"You're not going to distract me that way," Lottie told him, but he heard the hitch of her breath when he found the smooth reach of her thigh. He made a discovery that sent a wash of sexual interest through his body, his c**k rising vigorously against the shape of her bottom.
"You're not wearing drawers," he murmured, his hand wandering avidly over her bare limbs.
"It's too hot today," she said breathlessly, wiggling to evade him, pushing ineffectually at the mound of his hand beneath her dress. "I most certainly didnot discard them for your benefit, and...Nick, stop that. The maid is going to come in at any moment." "Then I'll have to be fast."
"You'renever fast. Nick...oh..."
Her body curled against his as he reached the patch of hair between her thighs, the sweet cleft already rich with moisture as her well-tutored body responded to his touch. "I'm going to do this to you next week at the Markenfields' ball," he said softly, running his thumb along the humid seam of her sex. "I'm going to take you to some private corner...and pull up the front of your dress, and stroke and tease you until you come."
"No," she protested faintly, her eyes closing as she felt his long middle finger slide inside her.
"Oh, yes." Nick withdrew his wet finger and ruthlessly tickled the softly straining crest until he felt her body tensing rhythmically in his lap. "I'll keep you quiet with my mouth," he whispered. "And I'll be kissing you when you cl**ax with my fingers inside you...like this..." He thrust his two middle fingers inside the warm, pulsing channel and covered her lips with his as she moaned and shuddered violently.
When he had siphoned the last few shivers of pleasure from her body, Nick lifted his mouth and smiled smugly into her flushed face. "Was that fast enough for you?"
The brief interlude at the breakfast table left Nick's senses pleasantly awakened and his mind filled with agreeable thoughts about what would happen when he returned home later in the day. In good spirits, he hired a hackney to convey him to his meeting place with Eddie Sayer. It would not have been wise to take a good horse or a private carriage to the Blood Bowl Tavern, a favorite criminal haunt, or "bastard sanctuary."
Nick had long been familiar with the Blood Bowl, as it was part of the area around Fleet Ditch where he had once owned a flash house. Fleet Ditch, London's main sewer, cut through a region of massive criminal activity. It was arguably the heart of the underworld, situated amidst four prisons including Newgate, the Fleet, and Bridewell.
For years Nick had known no other home. At the height of his career as a crime lord, Nick had rented an elegant office in town to meet with upper-class clients and bank representatives who were understandably reluctant to go to Fleet Ditch. However, he had spent the majority of his time in a flash house not far from the ditch, gradually becoming inured to the perpetual stink. There he had schemed, set traps, and skillfully amassed a network of smugglers and informants. He had always expected to die rich and young, having agreed with the words of a criminal he had once seen hanged at Tyburn: "A life has been well-spent if it be short but merry."
But just before Nick had been about to receive his well-deserved comeuppance, Sir Ross Cannon had stepped in with his infamous deal. Much as Nick hated to admit it, the years he had spent as a runner had been the best of his life. Although he had always resented Sir Ross's manipulations, there was no denying that his brother-in-law had changed his life for the better.
Nick glanced curiously at the dark, crowded streets, where swarms of people moved in and out of ramshackle buildings that were seemingly piled one atop the other. Coming here after having just left his clean, pretty wife in the serene little house on Betterton Street was jarring. And strangely, the anticipation of going on the hunt was not half as strong as it used to be. Nick had expected to feel the savage thrill of prowling through the most dangerous area in London, and instead...
He was damned if he wasn't half sorry that he had agreed to come help Sayer today.
But why? He was no coward, no pampered aristocrat. It was just...he had the perplexing feeling that he did not belong here anymore. He had something to lose, and he did not want to risk it.
Shaking his head in confusion, Nick entered the Blood Bowl and found Sayer waiting at a table in a dark corner. The tavern was as rank and filthy and crowded as ever, smelling like refuse, gin, and bodily odors.
Sayer greeted him with a friendly grin. Young, dashing, and large-framed, Sayer was undoubtedly the best runner that Sir Grant had now that Nick had left the force. Although Nick was glad to see his friend, he had an odd sinking feeling as he saw the gleam of reckless excitement in Sayer's eyes and realized that he did not share it. Nick did not doubt that his abilities and instincts were still there, but he no longer possessed the hunger to hunt. He wanted to be at home with his wife.
Damn, he thought in rising agitation.
"Morgan will gut me like a cod if he finds out that I asked you to do this," Sayer said ruefully.
"He won't find out." Nick joined him at the table, shaking his head in refusal as a barmaid approached them with a jug of ale. The coarse-faced girl pretended to pout, then winked as she sidled away.
"I could do it myself, I think," Sayer said softly, heedful of the possibility of being overheard. "But I don't know all the ins and outs of Fleet Ditch as well as you do. No one does. And you're the only one who could easily identify the fellow I want to catch, as you've had prior experience with him."
"Who is it?" Nick set his forearms on the table and removed them promptly as he felt his sleeves sticking to the wooden surface.
The name took Nick by surprise. Unlike the average criminal in London, most of whom were opportunists, Follard was of that category considered to be the criminal elite, both skillful and soulless. Nick had arrested Follard two years ago, after the bastard had robbed the house of a prosperous attorney and killed the man and raped his wife when they'd offered resistance. However, Follard had been spared the gallows and been transported instead, in return for offering evidence against his accomplices.
"Follard was sent to Australia," Nick said.
"He's come back," Sayer replied with a grim smile. "Like a dog to its vomit."
"How do you know that?"
"I can't prove it, unfortunately. But there have been rumors of sightings lately, not to mention a string of violent robberies that look exactly like Follard's work. Yesterday I questioned a poor woman who was raped by a thief who had broken into her home and killed her husband. Same method of breaking in, same knife-work on the body, and the woman's description of her attacker matched Follard's-right down to the scar on the right side of the neck."
"Jesus." Frowning, Nick pinched the bridge of his nose as he pondered the information. "I can't believe that Morgan would send you to catch Follard alone."
"He didn't," Sayer said cheerfully. "He wants me to question some of Follard's old cohorts and give him a report. I'd rather just bring Follard in directly."
Nick couldn't help grinning at that, knowing exactly what Morgan's reaction to that would be. "If you succeed, Morgan will flay the hide off you for such damned stupid showmanship."
"Yes...and then he'll kiss my bony arse for capturing a returned transportee. And I'll be on the front page of theTimes , with scores of women begging for my attention."
Nick's smile turned wry. "That's not as enjoyable as you might think," he informed his friend.
"No? Well, I'd like to try it, nevertheless." Sayer cocked his brow expectantly. "Are you game?"
Nick nodded with a sigh. "Where do you want to start looking?"
"Reports are that Follard has been seen in the slums between Hanging Ax Alley and Dead Man's Lane. It's like an anthill with all the holes in the walls, and tunnels between the cellars-"
"Yes, I know the place." Nick kept his face expressionless, although he was aware of cold distaste coiling in his belly. He had gone in those slums before, and even with his high tolerance for the horrors of the underworld, it was a nasty experience. The last time he had visited Hanging Ax Alley, he had seen a mother prostituting her child for gin, while beggars and whores crammed in the narrow lanes like sardines.
"We'll have to search quickly," Nick said. "Once they realize we're in the area, word will spread fast, and Follard will slip away before we ever clap eyes on him."
Sayer grinned with barely repressed enthusiasm. "Let's go, then. You lead the way."
They left the tavern and made their way through streets bisected with open gutters, the stench of dead animals and rotting garbage hanging thick in the air. The decaying buildings leaned against each other as if in exhaustion, groaning with every strong wind that blew against them. There were no signs to identify streets, nor were there numbers on houses or buildings. A stranger to the area could easily become lost and quickly find himself robbed, carved up and left for dead in some dark yard or alley. The poverty of the slum inhabitants was unimaginable, and their only escape was the temporary one to be found in a gin shop. In fact, there was a gin shop on nearly every street.
It bothered Nick to see the wretchedness of the people around him, the skeletal children, the degraded women and desperate men. The only healthy creatures to be found were the rats and mice that scuttled across the street. Until now, Nick had accepted all of this as an inevitable part of life. For the first time, he wondered what could be done for these people. Good God, they needed so much that it nearly overwhelmed him. He remembered what Lottie had said to him only a few days earlier..."There must be some issue that concerns you,"she had said."Something you want to fight for..." Now that he'd had time to consider it, he had to admit that she was right. As Lord Sydney, he could accomplish far more than he ever had as Nick Gentry.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Nick glanced cautiously at Sayer, who was clearly thinking of nothing more than finding Dick Follard. Just as he should be. No distractions, Nick warned himself, even as another voice filtered through his mind.
"There comes a time when a man has tweaked the devil's nose once too often, "Morgan had told him." And if he's too stubborn or slow-witted to realize it, he'll pay with his own blood. I knew when to stop. And so must you..."
It was indeed time to stop, although Nick hadn't known it until this moment. After helping Sayer with this one task, Nick would finally let go of his identity as a runner and reinvent himself once more. This time as Lord Sydney...a man with a wife, a home, perhaps even children someday.
The idea of seeing Lottie pregnant with his child caused a sweet pang in his chest. Finally he was beginning to understand why Sir Ross had found it so easy to resign from the magistracy when he'd married, and why Morgan valued his family above all else.
"Gentry," Sayer muttered. "Gentry?"
Lost in his thoughts, Nick did not notice until Sayer spoke once more.
Nick gave him an inquiring glance. "Yes?"
Sayer was frowning. "Keep your wits about you. You seem a bit distracted."
"I'm fine," Nick said curtly, realizing that he had indeed been preoccupied. In this place, that could be a fatal mistake.
They ventured into the slum district, and Nick assessed the area with a critical glance, trying to remember what he knew of the warren of alleys, tunnels, and crossways between buildings. He passed a hand lightly over his chest, checking the reassuring weight of an iron-filled leather cudgel in his coat pocket.
"Let's start with the buildings on the north side of the street," Nick said. "We'll work our way to the corner."
Sayer nodded, his body tensing visibly as he prepared for action.
They searched the buildings methodically, pausing briefly to ask questions of those who seemed likely to know something. The rooms and burrows were badly lit, not to mention crowded and fetid. Nick and Sayer met with no resistance, although they were the focus of many suspicious and hostile stares.
In a workshop near the end of the street-ostensibly a buckle-maker's shop, but in reality a harbor for coiners and forgerers-Nick saw the betraying flicker in a scrawny old man's eyes when he heard the mention of Follard's name. While Sayer checked through the shop, Nick approached the man with an inquiring gaze.
"Do you know anything about Follard?" Nick asked gently, fingering the edge of his own left sleeve with his opposite hand, in a signal well-known to those in the London rookeries. The subtle gesture was a promise of payment for valid information.
The man's paper-thin lids lowered over his yellowed eyes as he considered the offer. "I might."
Nick crossed his palm with a few coins, and the old man's wrinkled fingers closed over the money. "Can you tell me where I may find him?"
"Ye might try the gin shop on Melancholy Lane."
Nodding in thanks, Nick glanced at Sayer and indicated with a swerve of his gaze that it was time to leave.
Once outside, they headed swiftly to Melancholy Lane, just two streets over from Hanging Ax Alley. As with most gin shops near Fleet Ditch, the place was heavily packed long before noon, with drunken patrons sitting on the ground in a stupor. After conferring briefly, Nick went to the entrance of the shop, while Sayer circled the dilapidated building to find the exit in back.
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