Stephen’s warning shout came too late.
Leaning heavily on his cane, the ancient butler stood in the shabby drawing room and listened in respectful silence as his illustrious visitor imparted the news that the butler’s employer had just met an untimely demise. Not until Lord Westmoreland had finished his tale did the servant permit himself to show any reaction, and even then, Hodgkin sought only to reassure. “How very distressing, my lord, for poor Lord Burleton, and for you as well. But then—accidents do happen, don’t they, and one cannot blame one’s self. Mishaps are mishaps, and that’s why we call them that.”
“I’d hardly call running a man down and killing him a ‘mishap,’?” Stephen retorted, with a bitterness that was directed at himself, not the servant. Although the early morning accident had been much the fault of the drunken young baron who’d bounded into the street in front of Stephen’s carriage, the fact was that Stephen had been holding the reins, and he was alive and unharmed, while young Burleton was dead. Furthermore, it seemed that there was no one to mourn Burleton’s passing, and at the moment, that seemed a final injustice to Stephen. “Surely, your employer must have some family somewhere—someone to whom I could explain personally about the accident?”
Hodgkin merely shook his head, distracted by the dire realization that he was suddenly unemployed again and likely to remain so for the rest of his life. He’d obtained this position only because no one else had been willing to work as butler, valet, footman, and cook—and for the absurdly small wages Burleton was able to pay.
Embarrassed by his temporary lapse into self-pity and his lack of proper decorum, Hodgkin cleared his throat and hastily added, “Lord Burleton had no close living relatives, as I—I said. And since I’ve only been in the baron’s employ for three weeks, his acquaintances aren’t really known to—” He broke off, a look of horror on his face. “In my shock, I forgot about his fiancée! The nuptials were to take place this week.”
A fresh wave of guilt washed over Stephen, but he nodded, and his voice became brisk and purposeful. “Who is she and where can I find her?”
“All I know is that she’s an American heiress the baron met when he was abroad, and that she’s to arrive tomorrow on a ship from the Colonies. Her father was too ill to make the voyage, so I presume she’s either travelling with a relative or, perhaps, with a female companion. Last night, Lord Burleton was commemorating the end of his bachelorhood. That’s all I know.”
“You must know her name! What did Burleton call her?”
Caught between nervousness at Lord Westmoreland’s terse impatience and shame at his own deteriorating memory, Hodgkin said a little defensively, “As I said, I was new to the baron’s employ, and not taken into his confidence. In my presence, he . . . he called her ‘my fiancée,’ or else ‘my heiress.’?”
“Think, man! You must have heard him refer to her name at some time!”
“No . . . I . . . Wait, yes! I do recall something . . . I recall that her name made me remember how very much I used to enjoy visiting Lancashire as a boy. Lancaster!” Hodgkin exclaimed in delight. “Her surname is Lancaster, and her given name is Sharon . . . No, that’s not it. Charise! Charise Lancaster!”
Hodgkin was rewarded for his efforts with a slight nod of approval accompanied by yet another rapid-fire question: “What about the name of her ship?”
Hodgkin was so encouraged and so proud that he actually banged his cane upon the floor with glee as the answer popped into his mind. “The Morning Star!” he crowed, then flushed with embarrassment at his boisterous tone and unseemly behavior.
“Anything else? Every detail could be helpful when I deal with her.”
“I do recall some other trifles, but I shouldn’t like to indulge in idle gossip.”
“Let’s hear it,” Stephen said with unintended curtness.
“The lady is young and ‘quite a pretty little thing,’ the baron said. I also gathered that she was rather madly in love with him and wanted the union, while it was the baron’s title that was of primary interest to her father.”
Stephen’s last hope that this marriage was simply one of convenience had died at the news that the girl was “madly in love” with her fiancé. “What about Burleton?” he asked as he pulled on his gloves. “Why did he want the marriage?”
“I can only speculate, but he seemed to share the young lady’s feelings.”
“Wonderful,” Stephen murmured grimly, turning toward the door.
Not until Lord Westmoreland left did Hodgkin permit himself to give in to despair at his own predicament. He was unemployed and virtually penniless again. A moment ago, he’d almost considered asking, even begging, Lord Westmoreland to recommend him to someone, but that would have been inexcusably presumptuous, as well as futile. As Hodgkin had discovered during the two years it had taken him to finally obtain a position with Lord Burleton, no one wanted a butler, valet, or footman whose hands were spotted with age and whose body was so old and so stooped that he could neither straighten it nor force it to a brisk walk.
His thin shoulders drooping with despair, his joints beginning to ache dreadfully, Hodgkin turned and shuffled toward his room at the back of the shabby apartment. He was halfway there when the earl’s sharp, impatient knock forced him to make his slow way back to the front door. “Yes, my lord?” he said.
“It occurred to me as I was leaving,” Lord Westmoreland said in a curt, businesslike voice, “that Burleton’s death will deprive you of whatever wages he owed you. My secretary, Mr. Wheaton, will see that you’re compensated.” As he turned to leave, he added, “My households are always in need of competent staff. If you aren’t longing for retirement right now, you might consider contacting Mr. Wheaton about that as well. He’ll handle the details.” And then he was gone.
Hodgkin closed the door and turned, staring in stunned disbelief at the dingy room while vigor and youth began to surge and rush warmly through his veins. Not only did he have a position to go to, but a position in a household belonging to one of the most admired, influential noblemen in all of Europe!
The position hadn’t been offered out of pity; of that Hodgkin was almost certain, for the Earl of Langford wasn’t known as the sort of man to coddle servants, or anyone else. In fact, rumor had it that the earl was a rather distant, exacting, man, with the highest standards for his households and his servants.
Despite that, Hodgkin couldn’t completely suppress the humiliating notion that the earl might have offered him employment out of pity, until he suddenly remembered something the earl had said, something that filled Hodgkin with pleasure and pride: Lord Westmoreland had specifically implied that he regarded Hodgkin as competent. He’d used that very word!
Slowly, Hodgkin turned toward the hall mirror, and with his hand upon the handle of his black cane, he gazed at his reflection. Competent . . .
He straightened his spine, though the effort was a bit painful, then he squared his narrow shoulders. With his free hand he reached down and carefully smoothed the front of his faded black jacket. Why, he didn’t look so very old, Hodgkin decided—not a day over three-and-seventy! Lord Westmoreland certainly hadn’t thought him decrepit or useless. No, indeed! Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland, the Earl of Langford, thought Albert Hodgkin would be a worthy addition to his staff! Lord Westmoreland—who possessed estates all over Europe, along with noble titles inherited through his mother and two ancestors who’d named him as their heir—thought Albert Hodgkin would be a worthy addition to one of his magnificent households!
Hodgkin tipped his head to the side, trying to imagine how he would look wearing the elegant Langford livery of green and gold, but his vision seemed to blur and waver. He lifted his hand, his long thin fingers touching, feeling at the corner of his eye, where there was an unfamiliar wetness.
He brushed the tear away, along with the sudden, crazy impulse to wave his cane in the air and dance a little jig. Dignity, Hodgkin ver
y strongly felt, was far more appropriate in a man who was about to join the household staff of Lord Stephen Westmoreland.
The sun was a fiery disc sliding into the purple horizon by the time a seaman walked down the dock to the coach that had been waiting there since morning. “There she is—the Morning Star,” he told Stephen, who’d been leaning against the door of the vehicle, idly watching a drunken brawl taking place outside a nearby pub. Before raising his arm to point out the ship, the seaman cast a cautious glance at the two coachmen, who both held pistols in clear view, and who were obviously not as indifferent as their master to the dangers lurking everywhere on the wharf. “That’s her, right there,” he said to Stephen, indicating a small ship just gliding into port, its sails dim silhouettes in the deepening twilight. “And she’s only a bit late.”
Straightening, Stephen nodded to one of the coachmen, who tossed the seaman a coin for his trouble, then he walked slowly down the dock, wishing that his mother or his sister-in-law could have been here with him when Burleton’s bride disembarked. The presence of concerned females might have helped soften the blow when he delivered the tragic news to the girl, news that was going to shatter her dreams.
* * *
“This is a nightmare!” Sheridan Bromleigh cried at the astonished cabin boy who’d come to tell her for the second time that “a gentleman” was waiting for her on the pier—a gentleman she naturally assumed was Lord Burleton. “Tell him to wait. Tell him I died. No, tell him we’re still indisposed.” She shoved the door closed, shot the bolt, then pressed her back to the panel, her gaze darting to the frightened maid who was perched on the edge of the narrow cot in the cabin they’d shared, twisting a handkerchief in her plump hands. “It’s a nightmare, and when I wake up in the morning, it will all be over, won’t it, Meg?”
Meg shook her head so vigorously that it set the ribbons on her white cap bobbing. “It’s no dream. You’ll have to talk to the baron and tell him something—something that won’t vex him, and something he’ll believe.”
“Well, that certainly eliminates the truth,” Sheridan said bitterly. “I mean, he’s bound to be just a trifle miffed if I tell him I’ve managed to misplace his fiancée somewhere along the English coastline. The truth is I lost her!”
“You didn’t lose her, she eloped! Miss Charise ran off with Mr. Morrison when we stopped in the last port.”
“Regardless of that, what matters is that she was entrusted to my care, and I failed in my duty to her father and to the baron. There’s nothing to do but go out there and tell the baron that.”
“You mustn’t!” Meg cried. “He’ll have us thrown straight into a dungeon! Besides, you have to make him feel kindly toward us because we have no one else to turn to, nowhere to go. Miss Charise took all the money with her, and there isn’t a shilling to buy passage home.”
“I’ll find some sort of work.” Despite her confident words, Sherry’s voice trembled with strain, and she looked about the tiny cabin, unconsciously longing for somewhere to hide.
“You don’t have any references,” Meg argued, her voice filling with tears. “And we don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight and no money for lodgings. We’re going to land in the gutter. Or worse!”
“What could be worse?” Sheridan said, but when Meg opened her mouth to answer, Sherry held up a hand and said with a trace of her normal humor and spirit, “No, don’t, I beg you. Don’t even consider ‘white slavery.’?”
Meg paled and her mouth fell open, her voice dropping to a dazed whisper. “White . . . slavery.”
“Meg! For heaven’s sake, I meant it as a . . . a joke. A tasteless joke.”
“If you go out there and tell him the truth, they’ll toss both of us straight into a dungeon.”
“Why,” Sherry burst out, closer to hysterics than she’d ever been in her life, “do you keep talking about a dungeon?”
“Because there’s laws here, miss, and you—we—we’ve broken some. Not on purpose, of course, but they won’t care. Here, they toss you into a dungeon—no questions asked, nor answers heard. Here, there’s only one sort of people who matter, and they’re the Quality. What if he thinks we killed her, or stole her money, or sold her, or something evil like that? It would be his word against yours, and you aren’t nobody, so the law will be on his side.”
Sheridan tried to say something reassuring or humorous, but her physical and emotional stamina had both suffered from weeks of unabated tension and stress, compounded by a long bout of illness during the voyage, followed by Charise’s disappearance two days ago. She should never have embarked on this mad scheme in the first place, she realized. She’d overestimated her ability to cope with a spoiled, foolish seventeen-year-old girl, convincing herself that her common sense and practical nature, combined with her experience teaching deportment at Miss Talbot’s School for Young Ladies, which Charise had attended, would enable her to deal admirably with any difficulties that arose on the trip. Charise’s dour father had been so deluded by Sheridan’s brisk, competent manner that, when his heart ailment suddenly prevented him from travelling to England, he’d chosen Sheridan over several older, more experienced, applicants to escort his daughter to England—Sheridan, who was barely three years older than she. Of course, Charise had something to do with his decision; she’d wheedled and sulked and insisted that Miss Bromleigh be the one to accompany her, until he finally conceded. Miss Bromleigh had been the one who helped her write her letters to the baron. Miss Bromleigh, she told him, wasn’t like those other sour-faced companions he’d interviewed; Miss Bromleigh would be amusing company. Miss Bromleigh, she warned him slyly, wouldn’t let her become so homesick that she wanted to return to America and her papa, instead of marrying the baron!
That was certainly true, Sheridan thought with disgust. Miss Bromleigh was probably responsible for her elopement with a near-stranger, an impulsive act that loosely resembled the plot of one of the romantic novels that Sheridan had shared with Charise on the voyage. Aunt Cornelia was so opposed to those novels, and to those “foolish romantic notions” they put forth, that Sheridan normally read them only in secret, with the curtains closed around her cot. There, in solitude, she could experience the delicious excitement of being loved and courted by dashing, handsome noblemen who stole her heart with a glance. Afterward, she could lie back on the pillows, close her eyes, and pretend that she had been the heroine, dancing at a ball in a glorious gown with pale golden hair in an elaborate upsweep . . . strolling in the park with her dainty hand resting upon his sleeve and her pale golden hair peeping from beneath the brim of her fashionable bonnet. She’d read each novel so many times that she could recite her favorite scenes from memory and substitute her own name for the heroine’s . . .
The baron captured Sheridan’s hand and pressed it to his lips as he pledged his eternal devotion. “You are my one and only love . . .”
The earl was so overwhelmed by Sheridan’s beauty that he lost control and kissed her cheek. “Forgive me, but I cannot help myself. I adore you!”
And then there was her particular favorite . . . the one she most often liked to imagine:
The prince took her in his strong embrace and clasped her to his heart. “If I had a hundred kingdoms, I would trade them all for you, my dearest love. I was nothing until you.”
Lying in bed, she would alter the plots of the novels, the dialogue, and even the situations and locales to suit herself, but she never, ever changed her imaginary hero. He and he alone remained ever constant, and she knew every detail about him, because she had designed him herself: He was strong and masculine and forceful, but he was kind and wise and patient and witty, as well. He was tall and handsome too—with thick dark hair and wonderful blue eyes that could be seductive or piercing or sparkle with humor. He would love to laugh with her, and she would tell him amusing anecdotes to make him do it. He would love to read, and he would be more knowledgeable than she and perhaps a bit more worldly. But not too worldly or pr
oud or sophisticated. She hated arrogance and stuffiness and she particularly disliked being arbitrarily ordered about. She accepted such things from the fathers of her students at school, but she knew she’d wouldn’t be able to abide such a superior male attitude from a husband.
And, of course, her imaginary hero would become her husband. He would propose on bended knee, and say things like, “I didn’t know there was happiness, until you. . . . I didn’t know what love was, until you. . . . I was only half a man with half a heart . . . until you.” She liked the idea of being truly needed by her imaginary hero, of being valued for more than beauty. After he proposed with such sweet, compelling words, how could she do anything but accept? And so, to the envious surprise of everyone in Richmond, Virginia, they would be married. Afterward, he would whisk her, and Aunt Cornelia, off to his wonderful mansion on a hill, where he would devote himself to making them happy, and where their most pressing worry would be which gowns to wear. He would help her locate her father, too, and he would come to live with them.
Alone in the darkness, it didn’t matter that she didn’t have a prayer of meeting such a man or that if by some wild chance she did encounter such a paragon of perfection, he wouldn’t give Miss Sheridan Bromleigh a passing glance. In the morning, she would scrape her thick red hair back off her forehead and fasten it into a practical coil at the nape, then she would leave for school, and no one would ever know that prim Miss Bromleigh, who was already regarded as a “spinster” by students, staff, and parents, was an incurable romantic in her heart.