His Lordship’s True Lady
Book 4 in the True Gentlemen series
Hessian Kettering, Earl of Grampion, tried marrying in haste as a very young man and got years of marital drama to go with his endless regrets. He’s older and wiser now, and has responsibility for an orphaned ward who needs a maternal figure. Hessian is determined that his next countess will be a settled, sensible lady with a spotless reputation. Lily Ferguson seems to fit Hessian’s requirements beautifully, and if she also kisses like his most cherished private dreams, that’s no reason to doubt his choice.
As an heiress from a good family, Lily Ferguson has been subjected to the attentions of fortune hunters and fawning nincompoops for years. Because the bachelors won’t take, “Stop ogling my settlements,” for an answer, she’s developed a reputation for being difficult. Lily finds spending time with Hessian Kettering so very easy though. He likes a woman who speaks her mind, and Lily adores a man who actually listens to the ladies in his life. But what will Hessian have to say, when he finds out Lily is not the heiress polite society thinks she is?
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Enjoy An Excerpt
“Children, much less three children and one of them a female, will not do.” More strongly than that, Hessian Kettering could not put his sentiments, not in the presence of his niece. “I have no patience with noise, drama, or dirt, while children delight in all of the foregoing.”
Worth Kettering passed Hessian the baby, whose charming attributes included a penchant for batting at the noses of unsuspecting uncles.
“Lord Evers’s will names you as guardian of all three,” Worth said, pouring himself a fresh glass of lemonade. “Unless you want to tangle with Chancery—at considerable expense, I might add—then you have become the legal authority over three children. The boys will remain at school for the rest of the term, and for the girl, you simply hire a governess or two.”
Hessian did not attempt to sip from his own drink with an infant in his arms. The child was a solid little bundle with her papa’s dark hair and brilliant blue eyes—also a piercing shriek when she was unhappy.
Hessian and Worth were enjoying the morning air on the back terrace of Worth’s London town house, Worth’s Alsatian hound panting at their feet. The breeze was mild, the sun warm, and the plane maples providing just the right amount of shade.
That Lord and Lady Evers had gone to their reward seemed impossible. They’d been Hessian’s closest neighbors in Cumberland, and Lady Evers had been a friend.
More than a friend, for a very brief time.
“You raise another issue,” Hessian said, nuzzling the baby’s crown. Why were babies so wonderfully soft? “Children are expensive, and my coin is limited. I’m spending more than I should on this wife-hunting ordeal. I must have been daft to let you talk me into it. Ah, my niece knows a handsome fellow when she sees one.”
The baby was beaming at him, as only a baby could. Angels might exude as rich a benevolence as did one contented infant, and angels didn’t grin half so winningly.
“My daughter likes you because you resemble me,” Worth said, “and I wasn’t the one to convince you to come to London. That feat lies squarely at Jacaranda’s feet.”
Jacaranda being Worth’s wife and the mother of the little cherub in Hessian’s arms. “Why can’t they stay this sweet?”
“The ladies. I can muster a scintilla of patience for an innocent child, but the matchmakers will drive me straight to Bedlam.”
Hessian was the current Earl of Grampion, and however impoverished the title and distant the family seat—Cumberland was quite distant—earls were rare prizes, sought after by bankers’ daughters, American heiresses, and barons’ sisters.
Bachelor earls were also sought after by merry widows and straying wives, about which, some helpful brother might have warned a fellow.
The baby sighed a mighty sigh as if to echo her uncle’s sentiments, and Hessian tucked the child against his shoulder, the better to rub her little back.
“Your finances are healthy enough,” Worth said, draining his glass. “Especially considering where you were a few years ago. You have a talent for economizing.”
Worth was being kind, a tendency more in evidence since his marriage. “Three children will set me back considerably. Do you know how much it costs to launch a young lady in proper society?”
Hessian didn’t know exactly, but he’d seen the finery those young ladies sported, the carriages they drove, the millinery they delighted in. He saw their accoutrements at one social event after another, and in his nightmares.
“As it happens, I do know, because that’s my daughter you’re cuddling so shamelessly, and I’ve already set aside funds for her dowry.”
Babies were made for cuddling, brothers were apparently made for causing problems. “Lady Evers had a sister. Did the will mention her in any regard? Mention any family at all?”
Everybody had family, though Hessian’s family was limited to a younger sister, Worth, Jacaranda, and this darling child. So far. Given the mutual devotion of the baby’s parents, she’d have siblings by the score.
Worth scratched the hound’s ears. “Lord Evers was the last of his line, save for his sons. The boy Lucas is Lord Evers now, and if you coax my daughter to sleep, I will never forgive you. It’s too early for her nap.”
“She’s tired of listening to your prattling.” Hessian rose to take the baby on a tour of the garden, for, like her uncle, she delighted in the out of doors.
The dog looked to Worth, who got to his feet rather than allow Hessian to take the child anywhere unsupervised. Who would have thought Worth Kettering, former prodigal son, would be such a doting papa?
“Lady Evers does have a sister,” Worth said. “Mrs. Roberta Braithwaite, wife of the late Colonel Hilary Braithwaite. She’s something of a hostess, but being a widow, she’s hardly a suitable legal guardian for the next Lord Evers.”
Hessian recalled meeting the colonel and Mrs. Braithwaite several years ago at one of the Everses’ dinner parties.
“Mrs. Braithwaite won’t serve,” he said. “All I can remember of her is a tittering laugh and suspiciously orange hair.” And that Lady Evers had barely tolerated her sister.
No help there, for Hessian would not inflict on a small child the company of a woman he’d taken into dislike within five minutes of bowing over her hand.
The dog gamboled ahead to have a drink from a small fountain in the back corner of the garden. Hess’s own canine had remained in Cumberland, and though he’d had the beast five years, he couldn’t muster any longing for its company.
“Not only will Mrs. Braithwaite not serve,” Worth said, picking up a stick and tossing it over the dog’s head, “but the will awards you guardianship of these children. They can visit wherever you please, and the boys will doubtless spend much of the year at public school, but you have sole authority over them and their funds.”
Hessian raised his niece above his head for the sheer pleasure of seeing her smile.
“Drop her and I will kill you, Hessian, assuming Jacaranda doesn’t beat me to it.”
He slowly lowered the baby, who was grinning and waving her arms madly. “Your papa is a grouch. When he won’t let you have a pony, you come tell your dear Uncle Hessian, and I’ll buy you an entire team and a puppy.”
“Casriel already promised her a pony,” Worth said.
Casriel, as in the Earl of, was Jacaranda’s oldest brother. Hessian occasionally played cards with him when they were both of a mind to dodge the matchmakers.
“Then Casriel will have to un-promise her. I’m her godfather, and that means—Worth Kettering, you have become positively possessive.”
Worth had plucked the baby from Hessian’s arms. “Need I remind you, Jacaranda has seven brothers, and at least half of them come around at regular intervals and appropriate my daughter’s company without any heed for the child’s papa. Hadn’t you better run along, Hess?”
“You’re my man of business, and that means you have to put up with me. Why should I run along?”
The dog was in the fountain now, happily splashing about and creating a great mess.
“You should run along because your youngest ward is soon to arrive at your town house, and it’s only fair that you give your staff some notice.”
Worth’s sense of humor was unique—very unique. “The Evers estate is in Cumberland. Why should a small child be dragged the length of the realm for the pleasure of being sent right back north where she belongs?”
“You’re her guardian, and thus she belongs in your care. That’s what the Evers solicitors said, in any case, but I suspect the staff in Cumberland simply wanted to be free of the little darling at the earliest opportunity. Andromeda, come!”
Hessian stepped back, because only an idiot failed to take into account that wet dogs—
“Damn and blast,” Worth bellowed as the dog shook violently, sending water in all directions. The baby began to cry, the dog whined, and for those reasons—not because of a poor jest about a small child invading the Grampion town house—Hessian made his exit through the garden’s back gate.
Lily Ferguson’s finishing governess had warned her that a young lady must appear pleasantly fascinated with scandals and engagement announcements, no matter that they bored her silly. Lily was the granddaughter of a duke and rumored to be an heiress. As such, she was doomed to make up the numbers when prettier, more vivacious women were unavailable.
“Aspic and small talk,” Lily muttered.
They were equally disagreeable. Fortunately, the Earl of Grampion’s dinner party was lively and the general conversation loud enough to hide Lily’s grousing.
“I beg your pardon, my dear?” Neville, Lord Stemberger, asked. Because his lordship apparently longed for an early death, he leaned closer to Lily’s bosom to pose his question.
At the head of the table, a footman whispered in Lord Grampion’s ear. The earl was a titled bachelor with vast estates in the north. Thus, his invitations were coveted by the matchmakers.
Then too, he was attractive. On the tall side, blond hair with a tendency to wave, blue eyes worthy of a Yorkshire summer sky, and features reminiscent of a plundering Norseman. Strikingly masculine, rather than handsome.
Perhaps he had bad teeth, for the man never smiled. Lily would ask Tippy for details regarding the Kettering family, for Tippy studied both Debrett’s and the tattlers religiously.
Lily had found Grampion a trifle disappointing when they’d been introduced. His bow had been correct, his civilities just that—not a spark of mischief, not a hint of warmth in his expression. Many handsome men were dull company, their looks excusing them from the effort to be interesting, much less charming.
Lily’s musings were interrupted by the sensation of a bug crawling on her flesh. Lord Stemberger’s pudgy fingers rested on her forearm, and he remained bent close to her as if entirely unaware of his own presumption.
At the head of the table, Grampion rose and bowed to the guests on either side of him, then withdrew.
Lily draped her serviette on the table. “If you’ll excuse me, my lord. I’ll return in a moment.” Thirty minutes ought to suffice to fascinate Lord Stemberger with some other pair of breasts.
She pushed her chair back, and Lord Stemberger, as well as the fellow on her right, half rose as she departed. So polite of them, when they weren’t ogling the nearest young lady or her settlements. Across the table and up several seats, Uncle Walter appeared engrossed in an anecdote told by the woman to his right.
Lily made her way down the corridor, intent on seeking refuge in the women’s retiring room, but she must have taken a wrong turning, for a raised male voice stopped her.
“Where the devil can she have got off to?” a man asked.
A quieter voice, also male, replied briefly.
“Then search again and keep searching until—Miss Ferguson.” The Earl of Grampion came around the corner and stopped one instant before knocking Lily off her feet. “I beg your pardon.”
A footman hovered at his lordship’s elbow—a worried footman.
“My lord,” Lily said, dipping a curtsey. “Has somebody gone missing?”
“Excuse us,” Grampion said to the footman, who scampered off as if he’d heard a rumor about free drinks at the nearest pub.
“No need for concern, Miss Ferguson, this has been a regular occurrence for the past week. My ward has decided to play hide-and-seek all on her own initiative, well past her bedtime, after promising me faithfully that she’d never, ever, not for any reason—I’m babbling.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I beg your pardon. The child will be found, I’ve no doubt of it.”
This was the polite, chilly host to whom Lily had been introduced two hours ago? “How old is she?”
“Almost seven, though she’s clever beyond her years. I found her in the hayloft last time, and we’d been searching for hours. The nursery maids don’t think she’d leave the house at night.”
No wonder he was worried. Even Mayfair was no place for a lone six-year-old at night. “How long has she been missing?”
His lordship produced a gold pocket watch and opened it with a flick of his wrist. “Seventeen minutes. The senior nursery maid tucked the girl in at nine of the clock—for the third time—and was certain the child had fallen asleep. She went back into Daisy’s bedroom to retrieve her cap at ten, and the little imp wasn’t in the bed.”
“You could set the guests to searching.”
Grampion snapped the watch closed. “No, I could not. Do you know what sort of talk that would start? I’m supposed to be attracting a suitable match, and unless I want to go to the bother and expense of presenting my bachelor self in London for the next five Seasons, I cannot allow my tendency to misplace small children to become common knowledge.”
Lily smoothed back the hair he’d mussed, then tidied the folds of his cravat, lest some gossip speculate that he’d been trysting rather than searching for this ward. He was genuinely distraught—why else would he be baldly reciting his marital aspirations?—and Lily approved of him for that.
For resenting the burden and expense of a London Season, she sympathized with him, and for his honesty, she was at risk for liking him.
And that he’d blame himself for misplacing the child… Lily peered up at him, for Grampion was a tall specimen.
“Where is your favorite place in the house?” she asked.
“I don’t have a favorite place. I prefer to be in the stables, if you must know, or the garden. When the weather is inclement, or I have the luxury of idleness, I read or tend to correspondence in my library.”
His complexion was a touch on the ruddy side, the contours of his features a trifle weathered now that Lily could study him at close range. As a result, his eyes were a brilliant blue and, at present, full of concern.
“Come with me,” Lily said, taking him by the hand. “That you found your ward in the stable is no coincidence. You say she’s been in your home for only a week?”
Grampion came along peacefully. “She’s an orphan, her parents having died earlier this year. The will named me as guardian, and so she was left almost literally upon my doorstep. The poor child was quite close to her mother and barely knows me from among a dozen other neighbors.”
“What’s her name?”
“Beelzebub, on her bad days. Her parents named her Amy Marguerite, her mother called her Daisy.”
Lily dropped his lordship’s hand outside the library, which was across the corridor from the formal parlor. “What do you call her?”
He focused on a spot above and to the left of Lily’s left shoulder. “Sweetheart, poppet, my dear, or, when I can muster an iota of sternness, young lady.”
“Refer to the child as Daisy, but do not acknowledge that she’s in the room.”
“You believe she’s in the study?”
“I’m almost certain of it, my lord, if you frequent the study late at night. You will lament her absence, worry aloud at great length, and confirm to me that losing the child would devastate you.”
He considered the door latch. “Devastate might be doing it a bit brown. With practice, I could endure to lose her for ten minutes here and there.”
He’d be devastated if the child wasn’t soon found. Lily was more than a little worried, and she hadn’t even met the girl.
His lordship pushed open the door and gestured for Lily to precede him.
No wonder he preferred this chamber. Books rose to a height of two stories on shelves lining two sides of the room. The windows on the outside wall would look over the garden, and the furnishings were of the well-padded, sturdy variety that invited reading in unusual positions for long periods.
The wall sconces had been turned down, throwing soft shadows across thick carpets, and the hearth blazed with a merry warmth.
A pleasure dome, compared to small talk and aspic.
“We simply can’t find her,” Lord Grampion announced. “Daisy is very clever at choosing hiding places, and I despair of locating her when she doesn’t want to be found.”
“Where have you looked?” Lily asked as a curtain twitched in the absence of any breeze.
“We’re searching the house from top to bottom, the maids are starting in the cellars, the footmen in the attics. Nobody will sleep a wink until Daisy is once again tucked safely in her bed.”
Lily pointed to the curtain, and Grampion nodded.
“She must matter to you very much for you to leave your guests and set your entire staff to searching, my lord.”
“Of course she matters to me. She’s the dearest child, and I’m responsible for her happiness and well-being.”
His lordship was clearly not playacting. In the space of a week, Daisy had captured his heart, or at least his sense of duty. Many daughters commanded less loyalty from their blood relatives, and nieces were fortunate to have a roof over their heads.
As Uncle Walter so kindly reminded Lily at every opportunity.
“Do you think she might be lost?” Lily asked as his lordship silently stalked across the room. “It’s so very dark out tonight. Not a sliver of a moon in the sky.”
“Daisy is too clever to be lost,” Grampion said, pushing back the curtain. “But she’s not too clever to be found.”
A small blond child sat hunched on a window seat. She peered up at the earl, saying nothing. Most parents would have launched into a vociferous scold. Grampion instead sat beside the child. He said nothing and merely tucked her braid over her shoulder.
“I couldn’t sleep,” the girl said, ducking her head. “I miss home.”
“So do I,” the earl replied. “Are your feet cold?”
Bare toes peeked out from beneath the hem of a linen nightgown. “Yes.”
The earl scooped her up and settled her in his lap. “You gave me a fright, Daisy. Another fright, and you promised not to do this again.”
She sat stiffly in his arms, like a cat who had pressing business to be about in the pantry. “Will you beat me?”
He should probably not have admitted that, and Lily should not be witnessing a moment both awkward and intimate. She took a step back, and the child’s gaze swung to her.
Grampion rose with the girl in his arms. “Miss Lily Ferguson, may I make known to you Miss Amy Marguerite Evers, my ward. Daisy, this is Miss Lily.”
He’d chosen informal address, and Lily was far more comfortable with it. “Hello, Daisy. The earl was beside himself with anxiety for you.”
“Worried,” Grampion said. “I was worried, and now I’m taking you up to bed, young lady.”
“May I have a story, please?”
Grampion should refuse this request, because naughty behavior should be punished rather than rewarded.
“His lordship has many guests who will all remark his absence,” Lily said, holding the door open. “I know a few good stories, though, and will stay with you until you fall asleep.”
Grampion led the way up two flights of stairs, pausing only to ask a footman to call off the search. The nursery was lavishly comfortable, but all the furnishings looked new, the toys spotless and overly organized on the shelves.
Where were the girl’s brothers, when her toys wanted a few dings and dents?
“You will behave for Miss Lily,” his lordship said. “Do not interrupt to ask why nobody has ever seen a dragon, or how dragons breathe fire without getting burned.”
“Try to go to sleep,” Grampion said, laying the child on her bed and brushing a hand over her brow. “Miss Ferguson, a word with you, please.”
“I’ll be right back,” Lily told the girl.
His lordship plucked a paisley shawl from the back of a rocking chair and led Lily into the corridor.
“One story,” he said, draping the shawl around Lily’s shoulders. “No more, or you’ll still be reading when the sun comes up. And you may slap me for asking, but are you enamored of Lord Stemberger?”
The shawl was silk, the feel of it lovely against Lily’s skin. What sort of bachelor earl kept silk shawls for the nursery maids?
“I am in no fashion enamored of Lord Stemberger. Why?”
“He…” Grampion appeared to become fascinated with the gilt scrollery framing a pier-glass across the corridor. “He did not conduct himself as a gentleman ought at table. Sitting beside him, you might not have noticed where his gaze strayed, but I will not invite him back. He lacks couth.”
Lily approved of Grampion very much for speaking up when many other men would have looked the other way or, more likely, guffawed in their clubs over Stemberger’s coarse behavior.
Grampion lacked warmth, but he was honorable, and to an orphaned child, he’d been kind.
“See to your guests, my lord,” Lily said. “I’ll tend to the dragons and be down shortly.”
“Miss Lily?” came a soft question from the child’s bedroom. “Are you coming?”
Grampion bowed over Lily’s hand, his grasp warm in the chilly corridor. “One story. Promise me. The child needs to know I mean what I say.”
“One story,” Lily said. “One happily ever after. I promise. Now be off with you.”
Hessian rode along, resentful of the advanced morning hour, resentful of the odd looks from nursery maids and dairymaids alike, resentful of everything.
Except the child. He could never be resentful of Daisy. He did resent worrying about her though.
Daisy said not a word, despite having begged for this outing. She’d earned a boon by going for an entire day without running off, destroying a fragile heirloom, or spilling a drink “by accident.”
Hessian nodded to a vis-à-vis full of young ladies, all of whom he’d probably danced with, none of whom he recognized. He resented that too—why must London be so full of marriageable young women and so devoid of interesting company?
Daisy sighed, an enormous, unhappy expression in which Hessian mentally joined.
“Shall we return to the house, poppet?” At the plodding walk necessitated by having a child up before him, the day would be half gone before they were home, and yet, this was one way to spend time with Daisy that both she and Hessian seemed to enjoy.
“I like it here. I like the trees.”
If Hessian set her down, she’d likely be up one of those trees, thoroughly stuck, before he’d even dismounted.
“When we come again, we can feed the ducks.” Every self-respecting earl longed to stand about among quacking, honking, greedy ducks, risking his boots and his dignity at the same time. For her, he’d do it though. In the damned rain if necessary.
His generous offer earned him no reply, but what had he expected? Daisy was becoming a withdrawn child, and that had him close to panic. Her mother had been pragmatic and good-humored. She’d loved Daisy madly, of that Hessian had no doubt.
Daisy sat up so abruptly, the horse halted. “It’s the dragon lady!”
A woman in an elegant blue riding habit sat a chestnut mare, a groom trailing her by several yards. Her hair was looped in two braids over her left shoulder, and those braids—glossy auburn, nearly matching the color of the horse’s coat—confirmed her identity.
“Miss Ferguson,” Hessian said as she halted her mare. “Good day.”
Long ago, as a boy quivering to begin his studies at university, Hessian had occasionally accompanied his father to London. He’d known Lily Ferguson then because her uncle and Papa had been acquainted, but the girl Lily Ferguson and this grown version had little in common.
In Hessian’s unerring adolescent opinion, little Lily had been a brat; and in her estimation, he’d doubtless been a rotten, self-important prig. The passage of time had wrought substantial improvements on her side of the balance sheet. For all she was petite, Miss Ferguson made an elegant picture on her mare.
She inclined her head. “My lord, and Miss Daisy. What a pleasant surprise. Shall we enjoy the park together?”
The lady’s greeting to Hessian was cordial, but upon Daisy she bestowed a beaming, conspiratorial smile. To a small child, that smile would hint of tea parties in the nursery, spying from balconies, and cakes smuggled up from the kitchen.
“Daisy, can you greet Miss Ferguson?” For the child who’d nearly leaped from the saddle at the sight of the lady had remained silent.
“Good day, Miss Lily.”
“What is your horse’s name, Daisy?”
The girl squirmed about to peer up at Hessian, but he busied himself with turning the gelding to walk beside Miss Ferguson’s mare.
“Ah, the law-giver,” Miss Lily said. “What is his favorite treat?”
After several minutes, Hessian realized that Miss Ferguson was asking questions that required answers other than yes or no, and by virtue of patient silences, she was getting those answers. Daisy’s replies gradually lengthened, until she was explaining to Miss Lily that the tree branches outside her bedroom window made patterns on the curtains in the shape of the dreaded Hydra from her storybooks.
“That cannot be pleasant when you are trying to fall asleep,” Miss Ferguson said. “When next this Hydra tries to prevent your slumbers, you must banish him.”
“But the shadows are there, every night. Even if there isn’t any moon, the torches in the garden make shadows on my curtains. How do I banish shadows?”
“You open the curtains of course,” Miss Lily replied, “and then you can see that the same old boring trees are in their same old boring places in the garden, night after night. No wonder they delight in dancing when the breeze comes along.”
Daisy looked around at the plane maples towering overhead. “They dance?”
“A minuet, I think, unless a storm is coming, and then it’s more a gigue. Grampion, do the trees dance up in Cumberland?”
“Oh, routinely. They’re almost as lively as debutantes during the first reel of the evening.” And ever so much more soothing to a man’s nerves.
“My mama danced.”
Hessian fumbled about for a response to Daisy’s first mention of either parent.
“My mama loved to dance,” Miss Lily observed. “I’m an indifferent dancer, though a dear, departed friend once told me that dancing improves if a lady stands up with the right fellow.”
“My papa is dead. That means he’s in heaven, except he was put in a box when he died. Does the box go to heaven? Like a package?”
Why did this topic have to come up now, without warning, in public, in conversation with a young lady whose company Hessian found a good deal more bearable than most of her kind?
“Perhaps now is not the time—” Hessian began.
“Daisy, do you remember the story about Moses?” Miss Ferguson asked. “He made the sea step aside so he could take his people to safety?”
“Well, the sea doesn’t normally have such accommodating manners, does it? Something unexplainable and wonderful was involved, like dragons breathing fire without scorching their tongues. Getting to heaven is something like that. You needn’t drag along the part of you that got sick, and had megrims, and suffered nightmares. The forever part of you slips into heaven like Moses dashing right across the sea.”
“Wonderful, but we can’t explain it,” Daisy said, petting Ham’s withers. “Only good people go to heaven.”
Miss Lily guided her mare around a puddle, and just as the trees overhead were mirrored on the puddle’s surface, insight reflected off Daisy’s comment.
Good people went to heaven; therefore, bad little girls did not go to heaven, and they thus avoided ending up in a wooden box beneath the churchyard.
No wonder Daisy saw monsters in the night shadows. Quite logical, from a child’s point of view.
“Daisy, have you ever had a good dream?” Miss Ferguson asked. “One where you could fly, or glide up the steps without your feet touching the carpet?”
“Yes. I dreamed I was a kite, and I could see all of Cumberland like a bird. It was very beautiful, and I wasn’t afraid at all.”
“You’re an astute little girl. You know that was a dream. When you were dreaming it, did you know it was a dream?”
This was all tiresomely abstract—Hess couldn’t recall when last he’d dreamed—but as the horses clip-clopped along, Daisy appeared to consider the question.
“I thought I was a kite. I didn’t know it was a dream when I was in the sky. When I woke up, I was sorry it was over.”
“That is what heaven is like, but it’s real. When you dreamed, you forgot all about the part of you that was kicking at the covers, or a little chilly for want of an extra blanket. In heaven, you get to keep the good parts—the love, the joy, and the laughter—but you don’t have to carry along any of the hard parts.”
No vicar would explain death and heaven to the child thus, and Hessian wouldn’t either. The words sounded right to him, though, and he appreciated that Miss Lily was making the effort.
Appreciated it greatly.
“Does my mama still love me?”
Hessian could answer that. “Your mother loved you and loves you still, the way Ham loves his carrots. Even when the carrots are stored away in the saddle room, Ham loves them. Even this minute, far from his stall, he’s enthralled with the notion of his next carrot. Your parents love you, always, ten times more than that.”
Carrots. Not his most inspired analogy. Miss Ferguson hid a smile under the guise of adjusting the drape of her habit over her boots.
“My mare adores a big, crunchy carrot too,” Miss Ferguson said. “I’m not that fond of them myself. What about you, Daisy? Do you enjoy carrots?”
The ladies chattered back and forth about carrots, rabbits, and dragons who ate toasted rabbits, and all the while, Hessian wondered how long it would have taken Daisy to ask him about heaven. They ambled beneath the maples, until the horses approached the gate onto Park Lane.
“I have very much enjoyed today’s outing,” Miss Ferguson said. “My thanks to you, Lord Grampion, and to you, Miss Daisy. You will remember to pull the curtains back, won’t you?”
The reminder was for him, though directed at the child.
“We will remember,” Hessian said, “and thank you, Miss Ferguson, for bearing us company.”
He inclined his head and nearly steered Hammurabi across the street, except he could feel Daisy lapsing back into a silence too brooding for one of her years. With Miss Ferguson, the girl had actually chattered, and if ever Hessian longed to hear a female chatter, it was Daisy.
“Miss Ferguson, might you pay a call on us Tuesday? I would not want to impose, and I know the Season is demanding of a lady’s time, but—”
“Please say you’ll come,” Daisy said. “Please?”
The smile came again, the soft, sweet, slightly mischievous smile. “I would love to see you on Tuesday, Daisy. I will count the hours until we meet, and I’ll want to hear about your dreams then, so be sure they are grand.”
“I’ll be a kite again,” Daisy said. “Is Tuesday soon?”
Well, no. Tuesday was four entire, long, dreary days and nights away. “Soon enough,” Hessian said. “My thanks again for your company, Miss Ferguson.”
And for aiming just a bit of that dazzling smile at him too.
“What sort of sister dies as the Season is about to begin?” Roberta Braithwaite asked as she paced the confines of her private parlor. “Most inconsiderate of dear Belinda, but then, she was a trifle on the self-centered side.”
Belinda had been the pretty, younger sister. Her death was unfortunate, of course, but then, Belinda would never have to grow old—another injustice.
“The timing of your bereavement is lamentable, ma’am,” Penelope Smythe said.
Dealing with Penelope’s soft voice, bland opinions, and mousy ways took an endless toll on Roberta’s patience, and yet, a widow who lived alone risked talk. Penelope was the companion hired to prevent talk and boredom, though she fulfilled the first office more effectively than the second.
“You have been working on that nightgown since Yuletide, Penelope. What does it matter how many flowers you wear to bed?”
Penelope blushed, which on such a pale creature was sadly unbecoming. “The needlework soothes my nerves, Mrs. Braithwaite. If you’d rather I start on a pillowcase, I’ll happily—”
Roberta swiped her finger over the center of the mantel and revealed a thin layer of gray dust. Time to threaten doom to the housekeeper again.
“Spare me your pillowcases. I’ll not become one of those pathetic creatures whose parlor is overrun with framed cutwork, lace table runners, and scriptural samplers. The weather is lovely. Isn’t it time for your constitutional?”
Time for Roberta to enjoy a solitary tea tray. If Penelope noticed that her walk coincided with the afternoon tea tray, she never mentioned it. Perhaps she met a beau in the park and created her flowery nightgowns with him in mind.
Doubtless, he’d have spots and only one set of decent clothes. His name would be Herman, and at best, he’d clerk for a cloth merchant in the city.
“I’ve already taken my walk today, ma’am. I happened to see Lord Grampion, and he had a small child up before him.”
“Grampion rode out with a child?” The Earl of Grampion was a widower whom polite society declared had spent too many years rusticating in Cumberland. “I had no idea he’d remarried.”
On one of Roberta’s duty visits to Belinda, she’d met Grampion. He’d been a complete waste of good looks on a fellow with about as much warmth as a Cumbrian winter night. He’d put Roberta in mind of a bishop in a bordello.
And he was guardian of all three of Belinda’s children now. Such a pity.
Penelope bent closer to her hoop. “The child bore a resemblance to you, ma’am, though her hair was fair. She was very quiet, from what I could see.”
“She bore a resemblance to me? Do you think he hauled my poor Amy Marguerite the length of the realm? Tore an orphaned child from her home with her parents barely cold in the ground?”
“I couldn’t say, ma’am.”
Then Roberta would consult with somebody who could say, for Grampion turning up in the company of a child was a very great coincidence.
“I have neglected dear Lady Humplewit for too long,” Roberta said, moving a candlestick and revealing more dust. “Mourning for my sister has made a complete wreck of my social life, but Dorie Humplewit is an old acquaintance. She’ll understand that one needs the occasional breath of fresh air and a cup of tea shared with a good friend.”
“You’re very fortunate in your friends, ma’am.”
Dorie was a hopeless gossip. If Grampion was in Town—how did Penelope know an earl by sight, anyway?—and if his lordship had brought the children south, Dorie would know. She also wasn’t stingy with the teacakes or the cordial, and as constrained as Roberta’s finances were, both were appreciated.
“You needn’t wait dinner for me,” Roberta said. “A cold tray in your room will do. I might be going out tonight, and I wouldn’t want you to have to dine alone in that drafty dining room.”
“Very thoughtful of you, ma’am.”
Roberta considered for a moment that Penelope was being sarcastic, but decided that the girl was simply trying to hide her pleasure at being given an evening to herself.
To embroider more flowers on a nightgown nobody would ever see. “Do you know anything about raising children, Penelope?”
The needle paused over the fabric. “I’m the oldest of eight, ma’am, six of them boys.”
“You poor thing. One can hardly imagine a worse fate. No wonder your nerves need soothing. Write a letter to your mama and tell her you recall her nightly in your prayers.”
“Yes, ma’am, and my papa and my brothers and sister too.”
Roberta swept from the parlor, lest Penelope regale her with a list of their very names.
“Come along,” Roberta snapped at the maid of all work, who was as usual lingering in the vicinity of the footmen’s stairs. “I must change into suitable attire for a discreet call on a friend. Lady Humplewit has sent a note that her spirits are very low, else she would never impose on me so soon after the loss of a dear family member. We must bear up at such times as best we can and think of our friends rather than our own needs.”
The maid followed Roberta up the steps a respectful three paces behind, and she did a creditable job of assisting Roberta into a subdued, gray outfit.
“You’re excused,” Roberta said, choosing a bonnet with a gray silk veil. “Mind you, don’t let me catch you ogling the footmen. I will be forced to turn you off without character. A widow can’t be too careful, and neither can her staff.”
The girl looked suitably horrified, bobbed a deferential curtsey, and fled the room.
Roberta managed not to laugh until the door was closed, though the pleasure of intimidating the help was short-lived. The maid was probably doing a dratted sight more than ogling the footmen, and that was yet another injustice when a widow already had enough tribulations to bear.
“Grampion is practically your neighbor up in Yorkshire,” Lily said. “One ought to be acquainted with one’s neighbors.”
Devlin St. Just, Colonel Lord Rosecroft, and husband to the most stubborn woman in the realm, sent up a prayer for patience. Emmie had insisted that Lily Ferguson have his escort for this outing, and thus here he was, strolling the boulevards of Mayfair, when he might have been on horseback in the park.
“My dear Miss Ferguson, when next we are in the library at Moreland House, I will find a map of England and instruct you on the geography of the north. York is as much as a week’s ride from parts of Cumberland, and that’s if the weather’s cooperating.”
One didn’t instruct Lily Ferguson lightly. She was what St. Just’s countess called sensible to a fault. Coming from Emmie, who was a monument to pragmatism, that bespoke a prodigious amount of sense. Lily had befriended Emmie several years ago, when the countess was enduring her first London Season, overwhelmed by in-laws, and much in need of confidence.
And thus, Lily Ferguson commanded Rosecroft’s loyalty—and his occasional escort. “Rosecroft, would you rather be lounging about, scratching and making rude noises with your brothers while you play your ten thousandth hand of cards? It’s a fine day for a visit.”
Rosecroft had two extant brothers, or half-brothers, technically. “We no longer make rude noises. Sets a bad example for the children.” And the children were a fiercely competitive lot. “Have you taken an interest in Grampion? I’ll keep your confidences if you have.”
Lily was right about the weather. Spring was at her tantalizing best today, the air mild, the breeze scented with grass and new foliage. By tonight, the grass might sport a dusting of snow.
Such were the dubious charms of London at the beginning of the Season, and matters generally went downhill as the year progressed.
“The Earl of Grampion is an acquaintance,” Lily said. “His ward is new to London and in need of reliable friends. I think you’ll enjoy her company.”
In her way, Lily Ferguson was kind. She kept most people at arm’s length, though Emmie claimed that was purely self-defense when an unmarried woman was the sole heir to both her mother’s and her father’s fortunes.
“Madam, I do not befriend sweet young things.” Rosecroft had sounded like His Grace of Moreland. Maybe that was a good thing?
“You don’t befriend much of anybody unless they have four legs, a mane, and a tail. This is Grampion’s town house.”
The neighborhood was lovely, and the steps had recently been swept and scrubbed, though Grampion’s front door lacked even a pot of heartsease. Rosecroft didn’t account himself the heartsease-noticing sort, but his countess would have remarked the lack of flowers.
He rapped the brass lion’s head knocker, and the door was opened by a liveried footman. “Good day, madam, my lord. Won’t you please come in?”
The fellow’s wig sat perfectly centered on his head, his buttons shone as brightly as the nearby mirror, and his gloves were spotless.
Rosecroft handed over a card. “If the earl is receiving, Miss Lily Ferguson has come to call.”
The footman bowed to a deferential depth and took his leave.
“That chandelier rope would make a fine swing, don’t you think?” Lily asked, handing Rosecroft her bonnet. Her cloak and gloves came next, revealing a dress of such drab brown, Rosecroft had seen mud puddles of a more attractive hue.
“My older daughter would be up that rope the instant she had this foyer to herself.” Bronwyn was a much-beloved bad influence on her younger cousins. “My countess would notice that the carpets are either new or very freshly beaten, the pier-glass positively sparkles, and the wainscoting has a new coat of polish. You notice the nearest means of causing mayhem.”
“I was a child once, Rosecroft, several eons ago. Your countess would notice that you’re nervous.” Lily appeared to be assessing the weight of the chandelier when any other woman would have been stealing a glance at herself in the mirror. “You and Grampion will get on famously, which is to say, you’ll nod, exchange the minimum of civilities, and take each other’s measure with a glance. Ask him about his stables and I won’t be able to get a word in edgewise.”
“He has stables?”
Lily smirked and used the toe of her slipper to straighten the carpet fringe. Rosecroft’s countess fretted that Lily needed a bit more airs and graces. Rosecroft was of the opinion that Lily needed a bit more joy. She didn’t go through life so much as she perused it from an impatient distance. He himself might once have been said to suffer from the same affliction.
The footman emerged from the corridor. “His lordship invites you to join him in the library. If you’d follow me, please?”
“One doesn’t receive callers in the library,” Rosecroft muttered.
“One receives friends there. You’d receive callers in your saddle room, if your countess allowed it.”
Rosecroft would receive friends in his saddle room. Mere callers wouldn’t qualify for such a privilege.
The Grampion library was an inviting space, with more than the usual complement of bound books. The standard appointments were in evidence—globe, ornate fireplace, comfortable chairs, reading table, writing desk—as was a suitably attired earl, though his lordship looked to have gone short of sleep.
“Grampion, good day,” Lily said, sweeping a curtsey. “My friend, Devlin, Lord Rosecroft, was good enough to provide me an escort today. Rosecroft, Hessian Kettering, Earl of Grampion. I hope we find you well?”
Rosecroft exchanged bows with his host, all the while evaluating the earl for any spark of interest in Lily, and Lily for any interest in the earl. Grampion was a reasonably good-looking fellow on the settled side of thirty—the most marriageable age in Emmie’s opinion—and his manners were correct if not quite gracious.
He and Lily would make a fine pair, all proper decorum. Rosecroft was relieved to form that opinion, but he was disappointed too.
Lily was an orphan being raised by her uncle. Life had apparently taught her early that sentiment was a quagmire for the unwary. A union between Lily and Grampion would be based on common sense and, upon that most tepid of consolations, mutual esteem.
Rosecroft could not approve of such an earthly purgatory, but Lily would likely settle for it and not even realize how much the compromise had cost her.
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June 13, 2017
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