“Is Miss Jenny unwell?” Nicholas asked, his breath catching in his throat at such a thought. “Or perhaps hurt in some way?”
“Not at all, my lord,” Miss Dunston replied. “She’s at the school and is quite well. It’s just that, while I was in the village, I met someone. Someone you may find of interest.”
Nicholas raised a brow. “Is that so? And who would that be?”
“Mr. Patrick Thompson.”
Unable to stop himself, Nicholas gaped. “Are you certain? There must be dozens of men by the name of Patrick Thompson.”
Miss Dunston nodded. “I’m quite certain, my lord.”
“But how do you know?”
She smiled. “It’s rather strange, really. He approached me, saying he knew who I was. Then he requested to speak to you at once. I saw no reason to refuse his request.”
Nicholas nodded. Perhaps his luck had changed. Why the son of such a mysterious man would approach a schoolgirl, he did not care. Here was the hope he needed.
“Is he here with you?” Nicholas asked, glancing past the girl.
Miss Dunston shook her head. “He refused to accompany me inside, my lord. He’s waiting in the stable.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Do you mind if I remain here, my lord? It’s far too cold to be outside.”
“Osborne, take Miss Dunston to the parlor and see she’s made comfortable.” He turned to the young lady. “Tea?”
“Yes, please,” she replied, rubbing her gloved hands together. “Thank you, my lord.”
He smiled at her. “Believe me, Miss Dunston, tea is nowhere near compensation for the prize you’ve brought me.”
Nicholas hurried away, collected his overcoat, and was pushing his hands through the sleeves as he bounded down the portico steps. He did not care that he was nearly running. If the younger Thompson changed his mind before Nicholas could speak to him, all would be lost. And Nicholas was willing to push aside decorum to see that did not happen.
A horse whinnied from inside as Nicholas opened the white door. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust to the low light, but soon he saw a cloaked figure standing in the shadows.
Patrick Thompson was a short man, shorter than most. Although he could not make out the features of the younger man, just enough light allowed Nicholas to see his clothing was well-made. Even his boots looked as if they had never been worn. But shadows engulfed the man’s face, hiding his features almost completely.
“Mr. Patrick Thompson?” Nicholas asked as he took a step forward.
“Go no farther.” His voice sounded like sandpaper on wood, a strange sound coming from such a young man. Or perhaps he was not as young as Nicholas suspected. No one knew the father’s age, so why would he assume he knew the youth of the son?
“So,” Patrick Thompson said, “I understand you would like my help. Or do you plan to only do business with my father?”
“I’m willing to work with either of you, sir,” Nicholas replied. How was it he was acting as if Thompson was the nobleman when he was the merchant?
Because he has the upper hand,Nicholas thought with only a mild case of annoyance. He was willing to grovel if the need arose. Well, perhaps not grovel, but giving this young man a sense of importance would benefit them both.
“Tulk is within my grasp,” Nicholas said. “If I’m able to bring him down, I believe the ring of men connected to him will also fall. Your father came to me, so I know how important this is to him. But if I don’t have his help, or yours, I’ll fail. We’ll all fail.”
Mr. Patrick Thompson made no reply. A moment later, a spark from a flint against iron lit the corner. Then another. Did the man not know how to light his pipe?
When it finally did light, a billow of smoke filled the air, and the younger Thompson began to cough. A very odd cough. It sounded almost… feminine.
Nicholas shrugged. Some gentlemen had an effeminate air to them. Perhaps this man was one.
“Why did you approach Miss Dunston?” Nicholas asked, taking a hesitant step forward. “You could have easily called on me here. Or rather at my front door. A stable is a strange place to meet.”
“I…” Mr. Patrick Thompson paused. “I prefer it this way.”
Nicholas took another step forward. Something was not quite right.
“What does it matter? I’m here to help you.”