An Alleged Rogue by Sian Ann Bessey

Chapter 1

Amsterdam, 1788

Freddie Payne stood at the window of a tall terraced house in Amsterdam. In the canal below, a barge loaded with sacks of wool floated past, undoubtedly destined for the mills in Haarlem. The Dutchman at the helm shouted a warning to an oncoming vessel before steering the barge to safety beneath the arches of the nearby bridge. A smaller craft filled with carrots and onions passed by, going the other direction. The two men on board wore the clothing of common laborers, and if their lack of boating skills was any indication, they were more at home in the fields than on Amsterdam’s waterways.

With a contemptuous snort, Freddie moved away from the window. Why anyone would choose such onerous methods of making a living was beyond him. It took only a modicum of intelligence to realize there were far better, more lucrative occupations available for the taking.

He glanced at his reflection in the mirror that hung over the dressing table and straightened the lace on his sleeve. Yes, indeed. If a gentleman set aside his scruples, there were jobs to be had that took very little physical effort but paid huge dividends.

Over the years, Freddie’s average height and ordinary brown hair color had worked to his advantage. Even his rather unusual gray eyes had proven less of a handicap to his anonymity now that he’d amassed a large collection of wide-brimmed hats. He glanced at the trunk lying beside the door, his anticipation mounting. It contained a rather startling assortment of garments and accessories that enabled him to meld into virtually any environment. Freddie was as comfortable loitering along the filthy docks of Liverpool as he was working the opulent ballrooms of London. He grinned. It was time to test his skills again. After spending three years lying low in Amsterdam, he had exhausted the last of old Dunsbourne’s money. If he wished to maintain his life of luxury, he needed more. And England was the place to find it.

Adam Norton, Lord Dunsbourne, glanced at the sign hanging above the door of the small shop on the dingy street in Cheapside: Erasmus Dobbs, Hosier. Five years of searching for the man who had destroyed his father and decimated his inheritance had brought him to this spot. If the Bow Street runner’s report was correct, the proprietor of this unexceptional establishment may possess information that would enable Adam to finally bring his nemesis to justice.

Taking hold of the brass knob, Adam pushed open the door. A bell rang overhead, and moments later, a short, balding man entered the musty shop from a back room.

Pushing his spectacles farther up his nose, the man gave Adam an expectant look. “Good day, sir.”

“Good day.” Adam walked past a table displaying various types of hose and approached the counter. “My name is Lord Dunsbourne. I am looking for a Mr. Erasmus Dobbs.”

The flush of red rising above the proprietor’s collar was a clear indication that he realized his chosen greeting had been a mistake. Unfortunately, it was all too easily done. Adam may have retained the bearing of a titled gentleman, but the thinning fabric at his jacket’s elbows and the yellowing lace at his shirtsleeves belied his elevated position in Society.

“Forgive me, m’ lord.” The shopkeeper bowed. “I am Mr. Erasmus Dobbs. ’Ow may I assist you?”

“I was given to understand that you may be acquainted with a certain Freddie Payne,” Adam said.

The merchant’s welcoming smile became a scowl. “I know ’im,” he said.

Adam’s expression remained impassive, but his grip on the walking stick in his hand tightened.

“What do you know of the man?”

“’E’s a devious fiend, m’ lord. There’s not many I’d wish tossed into Newgate, but ’e’s one of ’em.”

“I could not agree more.” Adam considered it extremely unlikely that the merchant wished Payne arrested any more than he did. Unfortunately, Adam had long since come to the conclusion that along with being a cold-hearted villain, Freddie Payne was an undisputed genius. No matter the magnitude of his crimes, he had evaded capture for almost twenty years, and Adam was beginning to wonder if anyone would ever best the man. “Do you know of anyone who may know his current whereabouts?”

“No, m’ lord. Freddie weren’t one to make friends even when ’e were a boy. ’E ’asn’t been seen ’round these parts fer years, and I can’t say that anyone’s missed ’im either.”

Adam smothered his frustration. Freddie Payne had not been seen anywhere for years. The man was a veritable phantom.

“But you knew him well enough to know his family?”

“Knew ’is father, I did. God rest ’is soul.” Mr. Dobbs shook his head. “Walter Payne didn’t deserve the son ’e got. When ’is wife died, ’e was left t’ raise the lad hi’self. But it weren’t ’is fault that Freddie turned out so rotten.” He frowned. “Fer Walter’s sake, I gave ’is son ’is first real job. And what did Freddie do to thank me? Took off with ten pounds’ worth of silk stockin’s, that’s what.”

Adam surveyed the handful of boxes lining the shelves behind the counter. It would seem that Mr. Dobbs’s inventory was limited. Ten pounds’ worth of silk stockings would undoubtedly constitute a significant loss.

“I am very sorry to hear it. Were you able to recover any of the stolen items?”

“Not a one,” Mr. Dobbs said bitterly. “I made sure all me friends and neighbors knew what ’e’d done. Ev’ry last one of ’em was keepin’ a lookout fer me, but no one ever ’eard so much as a whisper ’bout Freddie after that. ’E just disappeared.”

“So you have not seen or heard from Payne since then?”

“No, m’ lord. I reckon the thievin’ blighter knew ’e’d be done for if ’e ever set foot inside my shop again.”

Adam had heard similar accounts from gentlemen of various walks of life who had been duped by Freddie Payne. But he had desperately hoped that Mr. Dobbs’s prior association with the Payne family would set his particular situation apart from all the others.

“I imagine it’s been a good twenty years since Payne was under your employ,” Adam pressed. “Would you recognize him still?”

Mr. Dobbs set his jaw. “It wouldn’t matter ’ow much ’e’d grown, ’ow ’e wore ’is ’air, or ’ow much ’e changed ’is voice, m’ lord. If ’e was man enough to look me in the eyes, I’d know ’im.”

“Why is that?”

“Freddie Payne’s eyes are as cold as the sea and about the same color. I’ve never seen the like on anyone else.”

“The sea presents itself in a variety of shades, Mr. Dobbs.”

“Gray,” the merchant said. “Pale, watery gray—the way the sea looks when a storm’s comin’ in.”

It was not much, but it was something. And it corroborated the other accounts Adam had gathered from those who’d met Payne. Over the years, the crook had done much to alter his appearance, but his eye color was unchangeable.

“Do you know of anyone else who may have had contact with Payne in recent years?”

Mr. Dobbs shook his head. “Word around these parts is that ’e took hi’self off to the Dutch Republic so as to escape the London authorities.”

Adam had heard the same rumor. It was not especially helpful to him now.

Mr. Dobbs offered Adam an apologetic look. “I wish I could ’elp you more, m’ lord. We’d all be better off with the scoundrel off the streets.”

“Indeed,” Adam said. He turned to go. “If you hear of anything that might offer a clue to Payne’s whereabouts, I’d be obliged if you would get word to me at Dunsbourne Manor.”

“Very good, m’ lord.”

Adam stepped out of the hosiery shop. Discouragement settled on his shoulders like a heavy, wet blanket. He had wasted a full day only to hit yet another dead end.

Directly across from him, Adam’s groom stood beside his carriage with the door open. Adam crossed the short distance quickly and stepped inside as rain clouds glowered in the sky, casting a dark shadow over Ironmonger Lane.

“Back home, Oliver,” Adam said.

“Right you are, m’ lord,” the groom said, closing the door behind him.

The vehicle swayed slightly as Oliver climbed onto his seat, and moments later, the wheels started rolling. Ignoring the men and women going about their business in the bustling Cheapside district, Adam leaned his head back on the worn seat and closed his eyes. The return journey to Berkshire would take several hours, but it could not be helped. His family’s townhouse in London had been one of the first things to go when he’d discovered the full extent of the financial loss incurred after Payne had tricked his father into risking the bulk of the family’s fortune on a nonexistent bakery.

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger as anger, despair, and frustration waged an all-too-familiar battle within his chest. The carriage wheels rumbled over the cobbled road, and Adam released a long breath. He may be no closer to capturing Freddie Payne today than he had been yesterday, but he had overcome disappointment before. He would press forward. If not for himself, then for Emily.

His thoughts turned to his sister, who, at age sixteen, was eleven years his junior and needed so much more than he could give her. She had never known their mother, who had died at her birth, and her memories of their father were limited to childish recollections. At age twenty-two, when his father’s heart had failed, Adam had been required to step into the role of Emily’s parent, and he was only too aware of how woefully unequal he was to the task. Especially now that she was coming of age.

Thankfully, his small but prudent investments were beginning to pay dividends, and his gardener, Henry, remained encouraging about this year’s apple harvest. Indeed, Adam was doing everything humanly possible to retain his family estate and recoup sufficient funds for Emily to have a modest dowry when she married. But what good would that do if she were never seen in social circles?

It was likely that very few gentlemen were even aware he had a sister—let alone one who was so sweet and so good. She would need at least one Season in London, but he had not the faintest idea how to go about organizing such a thing. And he had a horrible suspicion that her aging companion and former governess, Miss Glover, was equally unknowledgeable on the subject.

He sighed and gazed out at the passing scenery. Night was falling, and they were coming to the fringes of the city. Tall buildings lined the road, their even edges blurring in the twilight. The way forward did not seem as simple as it once had.

For five years, Adam had prioritized traveling to London at the faintest whisper of a sighting of Freddie Payne. Other than a desk full of documented evidence that the man had gone from being a wily thief to one of the most skilled forgers in the country, however, he had nothing to show for it. Adam was weary to his bones. He could not continue chasing down the elusive felon at the expense of all else—especially if the greatest casualty of his demand for justice was Emily. Like it or not, it was time to put aside his quest to right the wrongs of the past and focus his attention more fully on the future.

The late afternoon sun shone through the drawing room windows at Charwell Park, touching the furnishings and the two occupants of the room with a soft glow. Phoebe Hadford paused her needlework to watch a beam of light dance across the wall and smiled. The beam was a small thing, but it was cheery and bright, and it signaled the end of several days of rain.

“We have another dinner invitation, Phoebe,” her mother said, looking up from the small pile of correspondence on her knee.

“Really? Who is it from?”

It seemed to Phoebe that they had dined with almost all their new neighbors at least once since moving to Berkshire almost five months earlier. That constituted over two dozen engagements, and she had to confess, she was becoming a little weary of them. It wasn’t that she disliked social events—quite the opposite, in fact—but being the newest residents in the neighborhood meant that she and her parents were often singled out for special attention. And that was not always the most relaxing position to claim.

“Colonel and Mrs. Palmer are hosting a party to celebrate the colonel’s birthday.”

Phoebe’s heart sank. The colonel was a large, jovial man who was missing his left index finger, and whenever he could claim an audience, he took great pleasure in relating the details of the battle at which he’d lost that particular appendage. His wife’s temperament was similarly enthusiastic, but her particular passion was her garden, and she delighted in showing each and every plant therein to her guests.

“When is it?” Phoebe asked. Perhaps if they arrived a little late, they would be spared a third tour of the lady’s prize-winning rose bushes.

“Saturday at seven o’clock.” Her mother folded the note back into its envelope. “I shall write to accept the invitation, of course.”

“Of course.” Phoebe guessed that her mother’s eagerness to attend another social gathering was also waning, but a refusal was out of the question. Her mother was nothing if not a stickler for maintaining propriety, and it would not do to risk insulting anyone so soon after arriving in the neighborhood.

“I had better go and inform your father,” her mother said, rising to her feet. “You know how he is about such things. If he does not have a full three days to prepare himself for the event, he is quite upended.”

“Well, you are offering him four and a quarter days this time. He should have no reason to fuss.”

“You would think so, would you not?”

Phoebe bit back a smile as her mother sailed across the drawing room, the invitation in hand. Even if her father grumbled about attending the Palmers’ dinner party at first, she had little doubt that he would bend to his wife’s demands in the end. He always did.

As the echo of her mother’s footsteps disappeared across the hall, Phoebe set aside her stitchery and walked to the window. The sun was valiantly attempting to dry the last of the puddles on the gravel walkway. The rain that had fallen earlier that day had moved on, leaving a dampness in the air and a hint of the cooler weather that was to come. Phoebe glanced at the nearby oak. At the top of the tree, the leaves showed a touch of color—similar in shade to the golden chrysanthemum petals in the flowerbed beneath the window. Autumn would be here before they knew it.

Her gaze shifted to the end of the garden, where the chimneys of Bloxley Hall could barely be seen in the distance above the hedge. Phoebe’s sister, Jane, had married the Earl of Bloxley not more than three weeks before. It had been a joyous celebration, and the happy couple had left on their wedding tour almost immediately afterward. Phoebe did not begrudge Jane her happiness for one moment, but she missed her fiercely. She and Jane had vastly different interests, but they’d always been loyal friends. Only now that her sister was gone did she realize how much the girlish chatter and laughter they’d always shared after an evening out had meant to her. Perhaps that was another reason why social engagements had lost some of their luster.

A robin flew over the hedge and landed on a lower branch of the oak tree. Phoebe watched as it cocked its head and puffed out its red chest feathers. Its distinctive and cheery song served as a timely reminder that Phoebe’s rare bout of melancholy would not do. She and her family were fortunate to have been welcomed to the neighborhood so warmly. They would attend the Palmers’ dinner, and she would enjoy time spent with their other guests. If the evening proved to be exceptionally entertaining, she would write to tell Jane about it afterward.