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Authors: Hayley Ann Solomon

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Raven's Ransom

BOOK: Raven's Ransom
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One
Bills, bills, and more bills. Denver, Lord Barrymore, pulled out the pockets of his elegant, satin-lined waistcoat and fingered a sheet of paper that seemed permanently wedged in the stitching. He tugged a little harder and drew it out. A much-creased memento of Lord Derbyshire’s gaming party. Wherein he had lost a thoroughbred mare, a hundred guineas, and a prized ruby pin. He unfolded the paper with gloom. This debt was not so easily settled, for it was for a prodigious sum quite beyond his immediate means.
He cast aside the suspicion that old Lord Raven had
known
he was in deep waters when he’d issued the challenge to him in the first place. There was something about those wizened black eyes that dented his fabled composure.
Now
he was summoned to Raven Place and there wasn’t a way in the world he could make good the debt of honor. It would be a debtor’s jail for him, for certain, and disgrace besides.
“Would my lord be wearing the jade velvet this evening?”
“Bother the velvet, Hoskin!”
“Very good, sir. Am I to understand you are in Queer Street again?” The valet’s jaw did not move a muscle as he picked up a wide-brimmed, rather jaunty beaver hat and began brushing it down with vigor.
“The devil take it, is it that obvious?”
“Only by the number of tradesmen who are dunning you at the back door. Mrs. Quivers is sending them the rightabout, my lord.”
In spite of his troubles, Lord Barrymore’s lips twitched.
“Then very likely I shall not be bothered by them again for a month, at least!”
Even Hoskin, singularly averse to humor of any sort, grinned for a split second.
“Very likely not! Mrs. Quivers is giving them a regular, jaw-me-dead ear wigging, I can tell you that! Dunning a viscount indeed!”
“A very broke viscount.” Denver’s tone was rueful. “You probably have not been paid for a sennight.”
“Tush! As if I care the snap of the fingers for that! You shall come round, my lord, you always do!”
“It shall take a miracle, this time, to set me to rights. I am afraid I have rather overreached myself.”
“Stuff and nonsense.” Hoskin laid the hat to one side and opened his lordship’s trinket box. Sadly, much of the contents, by now, were paste. He tutted a little, then clicked it shut with disfavor.
“At the very worst, my lord, you shall find yourself an heiress. And now, I implore you, may I suggest the dark superfine with the satin trim?”
Hoskin, a valet of quite considerable talent, turned his mind to more momentous matters. It would be horrendous, after all, if the debonair Viscount Barrymore should ever be glimpsed in an outmoded frock coat. As for his cravat . . . Well, if it was not tied
à la mathematique
it would be criminal. Quite criminal.
The viscount allowed him to tangle expert fingers around his throat and high, perfectly starched shirt points. This was from a matter of polite, good-natured habit rather than from any burning desire to appear as modish as his man intended. All very well for
him
to talk of heiresses, of course—they did not, sadly, grow on trees. Nor, to his precise knowledge, were they in the habit of favoring fortune hunters with nothing to recommend themselves but a tolerably handsome countenance, a rather middling sort of title, and a couple of dirty coal mines.
Of course, he had not yet made the delectable acquaintance of a certain Miss Lily Chartley, nor of her equally engaging sisters.
That
pleasure was still to come. As Hoskin kept prophesizing, my lord would come round. After all, he always did.
 
 
“Grandfather is sporting the most
devilish
smile this morning.”
“Worse than usual?” Two pairs of eyes regarded this announcement with interest.
“Oh,
decidedly
worse! Either of you know why?”
Miss Primrose Chartley sank into a wing chair and bit hard into one of the fresh apples that had been set by Mrs. Bartlett upon the occasional table. It was deliciously crunchy and tasted especially good, since she’d missed breakfast and was famished.
Her sister, delicate, as usual, in a pale pastel dimity speckled, here and there, with the sparkle of a seeded pearl, frowned. It was only a
slight
frown, so her countenance was not overly marred by ill temper. Indeed, a person would be hard-pressed to annoy Daisy, who was a dear, trusting soul by nature. The slight furrow on her brow indicated concern. She tut-tutted as she pushed back one of her bright, sun-filled ringlets.
“You
also
thought that? I brought him in the
Gazette
about an hour ago and the gleam in his eye was unmistakable. If I was a flibberty gibbert like Lily, I would have been
quite
unsettled.”
Lily grinned from across the room. “Did you ask him
why
he was in such suspiciously good spirits?”
“Well, of
course
I did!” Daisy sounded indignant.
“Well, what did he
say?”
Lily bounced most reprehensibly on the lavish cushions, causing Primrose to frown and remark that she would crease her elegant—and very grown up—muslin morning gown. This had the desired effect at once, so that when Daisy answered, Lily was the picture, once more, of serene graciousness.
“Oh, there can be no talking with him! He merely cackled uproariously in the most
infuriating
manner and told me I was a baggage.”
“Well, you
are!”
The oldest and youngest of the Miss Chartleys giggled. They spoke as one, which caused Daisy to roll back her
heavenly
blue eyes and threaten to depart the room upon the instant.
“No!” Primrose pointed to a profusion of morning blossoms that she and Lily had been gathering. They were sadly mangled in a huge, silver epergne rising from the center of the room.
“You shall have to help us with the arrangement. I can’t stand delphiniums. I can never get them to sit properly.”
“That is because you don’t wedge them in with enough greenery. Here, I’ll show you.” Daisy set down her copy of
Lady of the Lake
and obligingly walked over to the offending epergne. It had several rather drooping stems sticking out from it and was decidedly in need of her green-fingered touch. As she deftly set the arrangement to rights, she thought she heard a few rasping coughs muffled by the distance of a gallery and several great chambers.
“It is getting worse, isn’t it?”
For once, all three of the Chartley sisters looked grave. The youngest, Lily, wiped away a sudden tear. It had welled up
quite
unbidden in her clear, impish green eyes. Now she fiddled anxiously with the ribbons of her modish new gown and sniffed.
“He is getting worse. Dr. Hall leeched him yesterday and he didn’t even have the energy to throw so much as a
book
at him.” Her tone was doleful as she reflected on this extraordinary state of affairs.
Primrose chuckled in spite of the situation’s gravity.
“Dr. Hall must have been tremendously relieved! I believe he must have the patience of saints to continue ministering to him.”
“Yes, though he is now canny enough to stand at the far side of the room when his decoctions are administered. It is left to poor Richmond to coax the evil smelling stuff down the old man. He has handed in his notice three times this week!” Daisy sighed, though there was a faint curve to her lips.
“Three times? I could have sworn it was four! I am not surprised, though everyone knows he is devoted to Grandfather.”
The coughing seemed to progress to a spasm. Primrose set down her apple. Though she appeared as calm and unruffled as always, a slight glimmer of alarm nevertheless nagged at her features.
“I think I will go and check on him again.”
Her sisters nodded. “Yes, you go. You have a soothing way about you.”
Miss Chartley nodded. Unlike Daisy, she was statuesque rather than delicate, with fine cheekbones and a healthy glow about her that spoke of brisk vitality and excellent health. She tossed her bonnet onto a chair and shook out her short, cropped locks. The copper brown gleamed in the sunlight.
“Go ask Mistress Ainsley to make up some chicken broth, will you? And perhaps Mrs. Bartlett will take up some of the lemon cordial. His throat is likely
aching
from the exertion.”
“Of coughing or shouting?”
Primrose’s eyes twinkled. “Doubtless both!”
Daisy looked doubtful. “Are you certain it is broth he needs? If he swallows that, then we shall
know
he is ill!”
“Let us hope he pours it out the window, then. Hush! Can you hear him?”
There was now no doubt that the rasping was worse. Primrose strode briskly down the hall, schooling herself not to run. Lord Raven’s interests would not be served by a wild and indecorous sprint through his home.
She hesitated when she arrived at the heavy oak door. The old man would not appreciate meddling, particularly if he suspected that he was being cosseted. Still, the coughing was now a peculiarly distressing wheeze and there seemed to be no sign of any of his personal attendants.
She knocked briskly then took a deep breath before bearding the lion’s den.
“Grandfather! Can I fetch you a glass of water?”
The old man glared at her from his bedcovers. Even at death’s door, he would have choked to admit how glad he was to see her. He
adored
his three lively relatives but would have swallowed gall before so much as
whispering
as much to them.
Of course, after so many years of living under his roof, the Chartley sisters were more than used to his bushy-browed frowns and his ominous tut-tuts. They knew perfectly well that under the mountain of ill humor hid a man of sterling virtues and infinite kindness. Who, after all, had taken them in when they’d been orphaned, had educated them, fed them, housed them, clothed them, bullied them and generally defended them against all ills for longer than memory served? Why he, of course. And all with an outward guise of quite dreadful temper and terrible wrath.
Primrose no longer shrunk in fear. Rather, she chuckled inwardly and smoothed down the pillows so that they were light and airy.
“I suppose you take liberties because you think I am in my dotage!” Lord Raven eased his head back on the goose feathers and steadfastly refused to admit he was any more comfortable. Since Primrose did not in the least expect such an admission, his stubbornness passed unremarked. This seemed to niggle at his lordship, for he felt it necessary to point out that he was used to three pillows, but since Richmond had deserted him, he supposed he would have to suffer with two.
“Richmond has not deserted you, sir. You sent him on to London.”
“Did I? And how do you know
that,
my little flower?”
Primrose noted how his eyes gleamed with sudden animation. So there
was
something afoot! She had known it!
Her reply was tart, which pleased his lordship, for he liked to feel his granddaughters were heartily endowed with spunk. Not at
all
like some of the dreary, missish wallflowers he had encountered in the past.
“If you wished it to be a secret, sir, you should not have called out the grooms from their slumbers and sent poor Richmond out in the pouring rain.”
“He was in a carriage, if you please, young lady! With those newfangled gas lamps he should be perfectly comfortable!”
“No doubt your most overwhelming desire!”
His lordship’s lips twitched at her irony. Then he guffawed a little, coughed to the point that she grew alarmed, and set his head back against the great crested cushions.
“No doubt! But come, you have not disturbed my peace to talk of Richmond.”
“No, but I confess I would like to know why he was dispatched with such haste.”
“I
wager
you would! He is to fetch Mr. Anchorage at once.”
“Mr. Anchorage? But he is your lawyer! Grandfather, you should not be conducting business when you are ill!”
“I shall please myself, little Miss Primrose! But no, this is not business, this is pleasure!”
“I thought lawyers were dreary creatures with never a lively thought in their heads.”
“They
are.
That is why he is bound to be shocked when he hears why he has been summoned. I have not had so much good fun in years.”
“Grandfather, you are a rogue! And what are you up to now, I wonder?”
Primrose’s eyes twinkled, for she could see Lord Raven was in high good humor and further from death than she had feared. His eyes were bright and there was a pinkness about his cheeks that she found pleasing. Perhaps a little meddlesome mischief at the long-suffering Mr. Anchorage’s expense was the very thing to revive his spirits.
“I am rewriting my will.”
“How gloomy. Can you not think of sunnier matters?”
“Certainly not! I have you three baggages to think of. And why your mama chose to name you all after flowers I cannot fathom! Lily, Primrose, and Daisy. Ha! It is enough to give me hay fever thinking on it!”
“Be sure not to sneeze in
my
direction, then. I have no desire to spoil my new gown.”
“New gown? What fustian is this? That is
Lily’s
old gown, darned a hundred times, no doubt, and trimmed with a bit of newfangled ribbon.”
“How observant you are, Grandfather! I only meant that since it has been refurbished, it
feels
new. No sense throwing away a perfectly good garment!”
“I’ll warrant that is precisely what
Lily
intended to do with it!”
“Yes, well, she is so very beautiful, it is understandable she wants to set off her looks with something more fashionable than last summer’s gown.”
BOOK: Raven's Ransom
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