Authors: A Man of Affairs
Moppe grunted. "Y'got plenty o'blunt o'yer own. It's been my observation that most of them fine leddies would be happy ('overlook you not bein' a duke nor a earl, fer the jingle in yer pockets."
"Moppe," declared Seth sternly, "we will not speak of this further. I am content with what I am, and that's all there is to it."
Moppe sighed. Indeed, Mr. Seth was not the top lofty sort to enjoy swanning about the countryside in a plush carriage with a crest emblazoned on the side. Which, to Moppe's mind, was a blinkin' shame. If a bloke was lucky enough to be took up by a duke when he was a nipper, din't it behoove that bloke to take advantage of the situation? Partic'larly when the duke had used Mr. Seth all his life like a faithful hound—of little account, but handy to have around when needed.
"Is this Beckett female the mort yer tryin' t'bring to harness for 'is lordship?"
Seth grunted in irritation. "I told you, I'm—" He halted and flung up a hand in defeat. He could rely on Moppe for discretion, and a confederate with access to servants' gossip would probably prove helpful. Damn, he hated this smarmy subterfuge. He wasn't cut out for such Byzantine negotiations.
"Yes," he admitted shortly.
Ah, well, he reflected, with any luck this girl would suit his purpose. He'd settle the matter with her father and be off within a few days, returning to his snug suite of chambers in Derwent House, the jewel of Grosvenor Square.
He swayed as the carriage turned from the main highway onto a secondary road. In a few minutes, the vehicle changed direction again, this time to pass between a pair of slender pillars. Moppe glanced briefly out of the window.
"Ump," he grunted. "Looks like we're 'ere."
Seth followed his gaze to observe a pleasant Georgian building, crafted of local stone that glowed pleasantly in the late morning sun. As he looked, the front door opened and a stout figure in breeches and boots emerged. The man descended the steps and waved vigorously at the approaching carriage.
"Ah," murmured Seth, "a welcoming committee."
He surveyed his host assessingly. Lord Beckett was not a tall man, but he made up for his lack of height in an impressive breadth. Thinning brown hair liberally sprinkled with gray sprouted in wisps above a florid face in which two small eyes fairly glittered in anticipation.
Moppe snorted. "Ain't surprised, are you? How often d'you suppose somebody like the Duke o' Derwent's son shows up on that feller's front steps? Or no," he added after a disgusted glance at Seth, "I suppose you din't mention that fact, didjer? Well then, the duke's personal represent'tive."
"Good God, Moppe, I'm only here to buy some horses—at least as far as Lord Beckett is concerned. I hardly think that's enough to send him into alt."
"My eye and Betty Martin! You c'n tickle me with a barge pole if he don't plan t'show you off to the neighbors like a prize pig and winkle an invitation t'Derwent House for the next time he's in Lunnon, besides."
Unknown to Seth and his henchman, the same sentiments were being uttered—in slightly more genteel terms—in an upstairs chamber.
Eden stood at the window, observing the carriage as it swung up with a flourish before the front door. She watched her father's burly form as he hastened down the steps, almost tumbling headlong in his eagerness.
She curled her lip. Lord, one would think Mr. Lindow had come to Clearsprings with the express intent of placing all the Duke of Derwent's wealth and power at her father's feet. Although ... She examined the thought that had been nibbling in the back of her mind since Papa had announced the imminent visit of Mr. Seth Lindow, ostensibly to look over a string of horses Papa hoped to sell to the duke. Why had it fallen to such an exalted personage as the duke's man of affairs to see about the purchase of horses? Was this not the sort of thing to be handled by His Grace's steward? Or even his head groom? She recalled the expression of assessment she had caught in Mr. Lindow's gaze the night of Lady Saltram's ball.
On the other hand, she certainly could not think of an ulterior motive for Mr. Lindow's visit. The idea that the duke wished to curry favor with an obscure country lord, or to beg an indulgence from him was too ludicrous to be considered.
Eden shrugged. Perhaps Mr. Lindow had other business in the neighborhood and had deigned to perform this small task for his master—or no, wait a moment. Had she not heard some time ago that Seth Lindow was the duke's adopted son? If this was the case, it made his visit here more mystifying. In any event—
"Is he here?"
The lazy voice spoke from behind her. Zoë had ambled into the room, and as she had done so often in the past, Eden marveled at the cosmic accident that had dropped two such dissimilar offspring into the same family. Eden knew herself to be tall and thin and plain, her hair a nondescript brown, her eyes a very ordinary shade of gray. It was no wonder she had remained unmarried at the advanced age of six and twenty. On the other hand, Zoë was a certified beauty. A petite blonde, her hair curled naturally in appealing ringlets, set off by eyes the color of a fathomless sea. Her features were dainty and flawless, and her complexion encouraged comparisons to cream and rose petals.
"Is he here?" repeated Zoë. "Ah." She answered her own question as she moved to the window to stand by her sister. "That must be he. I cannot think who else Papa would be making such a cake of himself over."
"Zoë," murmured Eden in gentle remonstrance.
"Well, just look at him, almost licking the man's boots." She flung out her hands. "And I don't understand why. Mr. Linden, or whatever his name is, is merely a hired servant, isn't he? I mean, he sounds like little more than a glorified secretary, even if he does work for a duke. And why Papa insisted we all had to be on hand to greet him—"
Obviously, Zoë was unaware of Mr. Lindow's more personal relationship with the duke. Eden saw no reason to enlighten her.
"Mmp," continued her sister. "I vaguely remember meeting him, but I... oh, my ..." She craned to obtain a closer look. "I'd forgotten. He's not bad looking, is he? In an odd sort of way."
Zoë hastened to a mirror to run a practiced hand over the golden perfection of her curls.
"He seems relatively well set up," agreed Eden placidly.
Zoë grinned saucily. "Are you saying that in order for me to find a man unattractive he would have to possess a second head or an extra foot?"
Eden returned the grin. "Of course not. He'd have to be fat and bald—and as poor as an apple seller, besides. Come along, then. We might as well get this over with. Papa will probably whisk him out to the stables after a decent interval, and we can get on with our day."
Grasping Zoë's arm, she propelled the younger girl into the corridor and down the sweep of stairs that led to the manor's Hall. The two arrived as the newcomer was being ceremoniously ushered inside the house by Horsley, their butler, with the assistance of Lord Beckett.
Another man, presumably Mr. Lindow's valet, entered as well and was turned over to a footman for delivery, along with Mr. Lindow's portmanteau, to the chambers that had been set aside for them.
"Ah!" cried Lord Beckett to the sisters, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Just in time to greet our visitor. Mr. Lindow, you've already met my daughters. Miss Beckett and Miss Zoë Beckett." He chuckled obsequiously as the ladies curtseyed and Mr. Lindow removed his hat with a bow. Lord Beckett beamed. "My two girls were constant gadabouts the whole time we were in London."
As he spoke. Lord Beckett drew the group into the drawing room, which led from the salon. Awaiting them there, seated in a wing chair of yellow-striped satin, was a lady of some forty-five summers. Her graying hair was curled in a style perhaps more suited to a younger woman, but the cap that rested on them was propriety itself, as was her gown of pomona silk.
"And here is Lady Beckett."
"So very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir." Extending a plump hand. Lady Beckett spoke in a high, breathless voice. "Do sit here by the fire. I declare, when I arose today and saw the sun fairly bursting through the curtains, I thought we would have a warm day, but no, there's still a bite to the air. I said to Beckett, 'You mark my words, dearest, we'll be needing a fire in the hearth for many a day to come.' Such a trial, when we've all been longing to pack up our winter things into a trunk and deck ourselves in our new spring finery. Eden, do ring for tea. Or perhaps you would prefer a glass of wine, Mr. Lindow?"
Her hands fluttered like startled birds as her husband moved to a nearby decanter.
Eden fancied she could see an expression of contempt on Mr. Lindow's face, and her cheeks grew hot as she moved to the bellpull. Poor Mama had a tendency to rattle when she was nervous, and this morning her tongue was running on wheels. Even so, Eden reflected angrily, it was not for the likes of Mr. Seth Lindow to pass judgment. She shot him a darkling look.
Seth intercepted the glance with some puzzlement. Lord, the rest of the family had fallen on his neck. What in God's name had he done to earn the disfavor of this unprepossessing female?
"I recall the dance we shared at Lady Saltram's ball. Miss Beckett." He noted the look of surprise that flashed in her face. He seemed oddly attuned to the mood reflected in her misty eyes. She had not expected to be remembered, then? He turned to the younger girl. "As well as Miss Zoë, of course."
Eden was indeed astonished. She had been sure the gentleman would have no recollection of her. Certainly, they had exchanged little more than a few words. To be sure, he had dutifully solicited her hand for a country dance, and she had been aware of that peculiar sense of connection with him, but his mind had obviously been concerned with matters of more import.
She smiled inwardly. Give Mr. Lindow marks for thinking on his feet. No doubt, he was merely making the assumption that if pretty Miss Zoë had come to his notice, the elder Miss Beckett must have been lurking in the background—ranged among the matrons and the potted plants.
Conversation languished then, or at least it would have, if not for the stream of inconsequential chatter flowing from Lady Beckett's lips like water rippling over brook stones. Eden knew a stab of gratitude for her mother's voluble, if scattered discourse.
She eyed Mr. Lindow surreptitiously, noting again the self-possession in his gaze. There was something else, as well. To her, it seemed as though she beheld a dangerous man. His eyes were not simply compelling, they were, she felt, distinctly predatory. She wondered again, this time with a flutter of panic, what was he doing at Clearsprings?
She chastised herself for her foolishness. Was she a fearful rabbit, then, cowering beneath the shadow of a swallow, mistaking it for a hawk?
At length. Lord Beckett rose and tossed back the last of his wine.
"Well, sir, I'm sure the ladies will forgive us if we repair to the stables. I know you did not come all this way to fritter away the hours as they do in idle chatter."
If the ladies took umbrage at this categorization of their daily routine, they made no sign. Instead, Lady Beckett said brightly, "Of course, dearest. Mr. Lindow will think our wits have gone begging. Do go along and take care of your business, and we will meet again at luncheon."
With this, she rose as well, brushing muffin crumbs from her skirt. Placing a hand under his guest's elbow. Lord Beckett moved him purposefully toward the door, and the last words Seth heard as they strode down a corridor toward the rear of the house was Lady Beckett's breathless voice.
"Eden, that puts me in mind ... I wish you will tell Cook that if she's going to serve her special trifle for dessert, she must make plenty of it this time. Last week when the vicar was here..."
Seth breathed deeply when they reached the outside.
What a feather-wit! For that matter, what a family. The
grasping and ambitious, the lady of the house with more hair than wit, a gray-eyed spinster daughter who obviously had taken a dislike to him on sight, and a flirtatious beauty who might or might not be the solution to his problem. Zoë had spoken little this morning, but so far he had no reason to revise the impression he had gained at their meetings in London. Here was a young lady aware of her marketability, who would have no qualms about using her charms to advantage.
Lord Beckett would not likely put a spoke in his plans. He had married off three daughters and no doubt had given up on sending off the oldest. Surely, he would be nothing less than ecstatic to be presented with an eminently eligible
for his youngest—if he could be persuaded to overlook the prospective groom's shortcomings. It seemed like a nasty trick to play on the girl, but, as he had observed before, there were many women who would put up with almost anything, including a husband who was a degenerate rake, for security and social position.
"Yessir, my little Zoë's a real beauty, ain't she?"
Seth started. Good Lord, had the man been reading his mind? Lord Beckett's bray of laughter sounded loud in the sunny kitchen garden.
"Couldn't help notice you noticing her, young feller. You may be the duke's man—but you ain't no different from the young sprigs hereabouts. Yessir, I've turned down many an offer for that hand—some of 'em very tempting. She had a London Season, y'know. Every one of my girls did," he added with obvious pride. "Every one of 'em took, too—except for Eden, o'course. Zoë could have had her pick of the dandies and the bucks on the strut."
Seth suppressed his distaste at the man's vulgar revelations. After all, he had not expected to enjoy becoming acquainted with the girl and her family.
"And yet, she did not marry?" he probed.
"Ump," replied Lord Beckett. "The gel knows her own worth. Said none of 'em was good enough—even Lord Speckrill's boy. And to my mind she's right. I can't say as I blame her for setting her sights on the moon, but without vouchers for Almack's ..." He frowned. "Not that she didn't try—and her mama, too, but none o'them highborn ladies would give my little girl the time of day, just as though she wa'n't the daughter of a lord." He turned a speculative gaze on Seth. "What she needs is a sponsor, Mr. Lindow."