Miss Delectable (Mischief in Mayfair #1) - Grace Burrowes

Chapter One

“Benny’s piked off again.” Otter’s tone suggested complete indifference to this development, but Colonel Sir Orion Goddard—Rye, to his few remaining friends—saw worry in the boy’s eyes.

“How long has he been gone?” Rye asked, with equally studied casualness.

“Nobody’s seen ’im since last night. Missed ’is supper.”

Hence, Otter’s worry. No child in Rye’s household willingly missed a meal or passed the night anywhere but in the safety of the dormitory.

“You’ve looked in the usual places?”

A terse nod. Otter—Theodoric William Goddard—was constitutionally incapable of fashioning an actual request for aid, but he had come to Rye’s office asking for help nonetheless. In all likelihood, Otter and the other boys had been searching for Benny for most of the day. Sunset approached, and with it the unavoidable necessity of enlisting adult assistance.

A child alone on the London streets at night, even a lad as canny as Benny, was a child in danger. “Any idea why he’d wander away now?”

Otter’s gaze slid around the room, which managed a credible impersonation of a gentleman’s study. The ceiling bore a fresco of scantily clad goddesses, muscular gods, and snorting horses, and more than once, Rye had caught Otter lying on the couch, gawking at the artwork.

The rest of the room was nondescript. Grandpapa Goddard’s portrait added a note of stern benevolence from a bygone era. Correspondence sat in neat stacks on the desk, and newspapers in French and English adorned the sideboard. The carpet bore a slightly faded design of roses and greenery, and the furniture hovered between comfortable and worn.

The only remarkable object in the room was Rye’s cavalry sword, hung above the mantel and below Grandpapa’s portrait. Rye kept it there, immediately across from his desk, as a reminder and a reproach.

“Benny disappeared for a few days last month,” Otter said. “Away on business, according to him.”

Rye mentally berated himself for not noticing that previous absence, but he did not eat with the boys. Enlisted men needed privacy from officers, and conversely.

“Did the magistrate take him up?”

“Mayhap. They’d hang a boy like that for sport,” Otter said, “or sell him to a molly house and claim he’d been transported.”

Some of the magistrates would. Of the six boys who called Rye’s dwelling home, Benny was the tallest and the least robust. He had a lanky sort of grace, delicate features, and the quiet air of the scholar, even though he hated soap and water. Benny could read—read well, a quirk he didn’t advertise to the others—and had a fondness for cats.

Otter, by contrast, was terrified of cats, a secret Rye would take to his grave. If the other boys knew, they exercised the curious diplomacy of the stews and ignored this gap in Otter’s otherwise impregnable defenses.

“Did Benny intimate what sort of business had called him away?”

Otter pushed unruly dark hair from his eyes. “Hint, ya mean? Nah. Benny keeps mum on a good day.”

One of Benny’s many fine qualities. “I’ll ask a few questions down at the pub and have a look around.” Rye would search every alley and coal hole. “He won’t be gone long. Tell the others I’ve been alerted, and they are not to worry.”

Otter snorted and left the office on silent feet. The boy never offered greetings or partings, though he was learning to knock before entering when a door was closed. With the lads, Rye had found patience to be not merely a virtue, but a nonnegotiable necessity.

As was an ability to take each boy on his own merits. John was their songbird, with a tune for any occasion, most of his ditties too filthy and hilarious to have been learned anywhere but at the lowest taverns. Louis knew the streets, alleys, wynds, and sewers. Entire rivers flowed beneath London, and Louis carried a map of the whole city in his head.

Bertie knew the rooftops and could get onto them and traverse them with more agility than a squirrel. He frequently served as lookout for the others, a skill usually acquired in the housebreaker’s trade.

And shy, fastidious Drew had a facility for math and memorization. He’d spout Bible verses at odd moments in odd contexts, and how he’d come by his store of proverbs, aphorisms, and quotes, nobody knew. He, too, abhorred soap and water, though somebody had put the table manners on him.

That the boys had already done their best to find their friend, with no results, was cause for panic. Most pickets who failed to come in from a night watch hadn’t deserted.

Rye left the house by