Tucking a knife into his battered boot, Devil Nick leaned against the rail of his ship and studied the new warehouses of the West India Docks emerging through the soot-laden fog. After five long years of fighting his way back here, he approached London with more gut-wrenching trepidation than a merchantman sailing into pirate-infested Havana.
London. Home. Or was it?
He could sell his purloined barrels of sugar and coffee here, sail around to the export dock, and upload a legitimate cargo within a day. He’d provided for his loyal crew as promised. The next twenty-four hours determined his fate.
“You goin’ back to bein’ a genmun, Dev?” his first mate asked in curiosity.
“Excellent question, Rog,” Nick replied. “Guess that remains to be seen.” He tucked his tarnished pistol into his trouser band where he’d carried it all these years. It had saved his life more than once.
After wiping his tattered shirt sleeve over his filthy beard to remove remnants of his breakfast, he slung his sack over his shoulder and swung down the ropes to the small rowboat waiting to take him ashore.
He made his first mistake in civilization by seeking a reputable hostelry. The innkeeper sneered at the dried bloodstain on his linen. Aware that he stank and that his hair hung on his shoulders in a dark mat, Nick flung a gold coin on the counter.
The proprietor tested its worth with his teeth, then held out a hand for the pistol and cutlass. “We’re respectable. We don’t like no trouble here.”
Nick gritted his teeth, silently surrendered his visible weaponry, and scribbled a shortened version of his real name across the ledger.
A copper coin sent a boy scurrying into the busy streets with a note.
Half an hour later, Nick was up to his filthy neck in water, with a barber working on his straggling hair, when someone knocked at his door. Not expecting a reply so soon, he verified that he could reach his knife before answering. “Enter,” he shouted.
Charles, Viscount Dabney slipped in warily, bearing a leather portmanteau.
In the last five years, Dabney had filled out a bit around the middle, but he remained the dandified young lord Nick remembered. The viscount was ten years Nick’s elder. They’d never been close, but they’d never been at odds either. Yet. Nick’s muscles tensed as he studied his brother’s expression.
“The countess will expire of relief at your return,” Dabney said in greeting. Crinkling up his nose in distaste, he studied the plain furnishings of the most palatial environs Nick had inhabited lately.
“It’s our father who concerns me,” Nick admitted now that Dabney hadn’t tried to drown him. “Am I disowned?”
Dabney looked surprised. “For quitting the Navy? Our stepmother is the one far more likely to kill you for not sending better word of your whereabouts.”
Which meant the earl hadn’t received word of Nick’s infamy—or hadn’t told his family. Either way, he was on shaky ground should the story emerge.
With dry mouth, trying not to reveal his hopes or fears, he asked, “How is he? I’d got word that he was ill.”
Dabney beat his beribboned walking stick against his Hoby boots. “The old man’s not well, there’s no denying. That doesn’t stop him from trying to produce another heir in case you don’t come home.”
Nick snorted. “How many sisters do we have now?”
“Five. Georgiana was born after you left, and they lost two more.” Dabney continued hitting his stick on his boots.
Nick recognized the nervous tic and asked sympathetically. “Is he still trying to talk you into marriage?”
Dabney exhaled noisily. “If you come home, he might accept that I’ll not marry.” He glanced at the barber and spoke more circumspectly. “I’ve found someone. I want to stay in Sussex. If you’re home, you can be the proper son he wants.”
And there it was. Nick sank deeper into the bathwater and washed off the layer of shorn hair on his neck. Home, everything he’d dreamed of for five long miserable years—if he played the role properly, if he was very, very circumspect, he could have his family back.
All he had to do was pretend he was who he wasn’t anymore, and not a soul would connect the younger son of the Earl of Atherton with anything so sordid as mutiny and piracy. A life of comfort awaited—except for that marriage bit. He couldn’t fool a wife for long.
“I’m scarcely one and twenty,” Nick argued, setting his terms. “He can’t expect me to marry until I’m past thirty.”
Dabney brightened. “I’ll tell him that’s a condition of your returning. It might take his sights off me.”
Surely ten years would give him time to unlearn bad habits and not terrify delicate misses into leaping off tall cliffs. It hadn’t taken him an hour to appreciate the luxury of hot water.
“You brought clothes?” Nick asked.
Dabney opened the valise. “They might not fit, but my…friend…is close to your height. I’ll take you to my tailor this afternoon.”
An hour later, newly shaved, his golden locks barbered into a perfect Brutus, lace discreetly edging the wrists of his blue superfine, his knee boots polished into mirrors, the Honorable Nicholas Montcroft Atherton strolled downstairs into the lobby of the shabby waterfront inn. He nodded regally at his landlord, inhaled, and strode into the morning fog—without the weapons the innkeeper was holding for a dirty sailor.