Authors: Rosanne E. Lortz
Table of Contents
r. Godwin peered out the window, anxiously anticipating the arrival of his next appointment. As senior solicitor at the firm Witansby and Sons, he had a difficult task before him this morning. Just last month, Dr. Stigand had performed the unpleasant duty of informing the Countess of Anglesford that the only thing likely to wake her husband again
was the sounding of the last trumpet. Mr. Godwin must now inform her that the late earl’s finances were in as nearly lifeless a condition as the earl himself.
For the sake of domestic harmony, most women turn a blind eye to their husband’s foibles. Edith Emison was no exception. For thirty years and more, she had not only closed her eyes to her husband’s financial imprudence but had genuinely considered him to be a model of fiscal propriety. Unbeknownst to Lady Anglesford, the old man had amassed tens of thousands of pounds in gambling debts and—had the Almighty not mercifully cut short his days—was well on the way to beggaring his wife and children.
The coach bedecked in black crepe arrived, and Mr. Godwin, who considered himself a friend as well as the family solicitor, came to the door to meet its occupant. Lady Anglesford was a petite, fine-featured woman, whose bright blond hair had only just begun to lose its luster. She gave Mr. Godwin her hand, covered with a dark mourning glove, and accepted his offer of tea before she sat down.
“I received your message and came as soon as I could.” Her hands clasped and unclasped themselves repeatedly in her lap. “What is this news that could not wait?”
The solicitor cleared his throat. He had rehearsed many euphemisms in his mind to describe the egregious state of the late Edward Emison’s affairs, but in the end, it seemed best just to state the simple truth and let tears fall where they must.
And so Mr. Godwin began a story nearly twenty years in the making of visits to gambling hells, of higher and higher wagers, of handing out vowels indiscriminately. “I am truly sorry, Lady Anglesford, but even your dower portion has been squandered. There is more than one moneylender clamoring to be paid, and I fear once you settle with all of them, there will be little left.”
Lady Anglesford, who had listened to Mr. Godwin’s news with growing horror, proved that she had not been a countess for thirty years without acquiring some degree of social aplomb. “I am sorry too, Mr. Godwin. And I daresay Edward was sorrier than either of us, and sadder too since he spent so many years keeping all this secret from me.”
She swallowed bravely. “It is a blow, I do not deny it. But we must make the best of things, mustn’t we? We shall give up the stables and the house in town and retire to the country.” A wan smile played over her lips. “A little country air does wonders for the health, so I hear, and as long as my sons are with me, I will not mind rusticating a while out at Woldwick. Edward was the one who spent his childhood there, but I have always felt a special kinship with the place. I am never more at peace than when I’m walking in the gardens there.”
Mr. Godwin clucked sympathetically and laid a fatherly hand on the widow’s shoulder. “If only it were possible for you to remain there, but I fear that Woldwick is in just as much peril as your house in Mayfair. To repay the amount these Jews are dunning you for, both the country manor and all your lands must be changed into silver. Whatever is left—and it will be a modest sum—could be used to rent a small residence in Russell Square.…”
Lady Anglesford gripped the handles of her chair. A residence in Russell Square! The situation was becoming positively nightmarish. Her fortitude and her forced smile were both beginning to desert her. Her mind flitted frantically to her eldest son. “And what about Haro? Is there any inheritance left for him?”
The solicitor sighed. “There is the title, of course. But any financial legacy is likely to disappear with the settling of debts and the disposal of the estate.”
Lady Anglesford’s face paled, and Mr. Godwin asked if she would like something stronger to drink than tea. “No, thank you,” she said, stumbling to her feet. She gave him her hand and looked up into his eyes through a faint mist of tears. The solicitor was not a tall man, but the top of her head barely came to his shoulder. “I think I had better return home while I am still able. There are others, besides me, who should hear this news as soon as possible.”
ord Harold Emison, or Haro as he was known by his family, had never expected his father’s mantle to fall upon him so suddenly. At his death, the Earl of Anglesford had not yet attained sixty years of age. His health had been as good as that of most men. He could still jump a horse over a tollgate fence, still argue his way out of a visit to Almack’s, and still drink lesser men under the table with a bottle of Madeira—up until the stroke that incapacitated him in early January and proved fatal a few days later.
Of his father’s gambling, Haro had slightly more cognizance than his mother. After all, one could not reach the ripe old age of three and twenty without knowing that one’s father was a devil’s hand with the cards. But the staggering amount of his father’s gambling debts still came as a shock to the young man.
“Good Lord!” Haro whistled loudly and thrust his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat. “Are you certain that Godwin has a good grasp of the situation?”
Lady Anglesford assured him that she had never found their solicitor to be mistaken in matters of financial advice. If anything, the picture was probably far bleaker than he had painted it. She buried her face in her hands.
“Good Lord!” Haro repeated, evidently too overcome by the moment to think of a more original exclamation. When his mother took the opportunity to retire to her boudoir, however, he took the opportunity to pour himself some brandy, and the exclamations came thick and fast.
“What are you damning so vigorously in here?” demanded Torin, entering the drawing room. The second son in the Emison family, Torin was seven years Haro’s junior. Haro was blond like their mother and tall like their father, but Torin’s features had a darker, more diminutive cast to them. While Haro was enjoying his life as a young buck about town, Torin was still finishing his studies at home.
Briefly, Haro relayed the news of their imminent impoverishment, and despite Torin’s younger years, the gravity of the situation was not lost upon him. “Good Lord!” he echoed, pouring himself his own glass of stimulants. “And Woldwick must be sold too?” He tried to keep the tremble out of his voice, but the sloshing of the liquid in his glass betrayed him. Lady Anglesford was not the only person who felt a kinship with the hallowed hearth of the Emison home.
“That’s what Mama says Godwin says.” Haro sprawled dismally on the sofa with the loose limbs of a large feline. His hand clawed at his exquisitely arranged cravat until the folds were mussed beyond recovery. He had entirely forgotten about his plans to take his pair of blacks out for an afternoon drive in Hyde Park. He had entirely forgotten that a certain young lady was expecting to ride with him in his phaeton.
“What are you going to do?” asked his brother’s voice, breaking in on his reverie of self-pity.
Torin stamped his foot defiantly. “Well, for heaven’s sake, Haro! You
the new Earl of Anglesford! You must do
to salvage the family fortune.”
“How the deuce am I supposed to scratch up a load of blunt that Papa spent twenty years throwing away?”
Torin paced the room, throwing out suggestions. “Borrow.”
“I daresay our family credit is rather low with London’s moneylenders right now.”
“Sell the family jewels.”
“Godwin says they’re already pledged as surety for some of Papa’s debts.”
Torin hesitated then forged ahead. “Well, then, there’s no help for it—you’ll have to marry an heiress, and a wealthy one at that.”
Haro frowned and sat up straight on the sofa. “Impossible! And you know it!”
“Is it? And do I?” questioned Torin. “You’re not currently betrothed.”
“No,” blustered Haro, “but—”
“And—much as I hate to admit it—you’ve got the looks, and the title, and the ton to attract some Croesus for a father-in-law.”
“So really,” said Torin slowly, “there’s nothing standing in the way of this plan except—”
“Except for the fact that Eda and I have an understanding!” Haro raked a large hand through his blond hair. “I don’t consider that nothing.”
Torin smiled wryly. “Eda’s a sensible girl, Haro. However serious your understanding, I’m sure she would quite readily
that a blow of this magnitude must set everything on its head.” He ignored his older brother’s glare. “And perhaps she won’t care twopence for you any longer once she hears what a poor devil you’ve become.”
He took half a dozen quick steps to the door of the drawing room. “In fact, I’ve half a mind to break the news to her myself. Eda! Eda!” He darted out into the hallway where a young lady in black walking dress was impatiently awaiting her escort for a promised drive in Hyde Park.
“How much longer does your brother mean to keep me waiting?” asked Eda with a touch of petulance as Torin came darting into the hallway. Her dark pelisse was trimmed with sable, instead of its usual ermine, a reminder that although the Emisons might drive out to take the air, the house was still in mourning for the late earl. Putting up a white hand, she touched her freshly-coifed black curls to ensure that they were all pinned securely beneath her hat. “Does he mean to beg off?” she demanded.
“Why, yes,” said Torin pertly, “I think he may very well wish to beg off.” He cast a glance over his shoulder to where his brother Haro was emerging from the drawing room with a thunderous look in his eye. “But I daresay he will want to tell you the news himself. I’ll away to the butler’s closet, and see how much silver we have to sell—might as well make myself useful before the auctioneers arrive.”
As the sarcastic schoolboy made his exit, Eda’s dark blue eyes flitted over Haro’s face. His cheeks had lines of worry that she had never seen before, and it was obvious that some great blow had fallen upon him.
She knew that his father’s death last month had shaken him, altering his existence as a young buck about town to that of a titled landowner. Where before he had social engagements and amusements to contend with, now he had duties to his family, his tenants, and the realm.
Though she was only just launched into society, Eda still knew enough about death to commiserate. She could remember when her own father had expired from a French musket ball and her mother from a malarial fever just a few months later.
But those memories were distant, a misty vapor from her early youth. There had been tears, yes, but there had also been consolation close on the heels of that disaster, when her mother’s cousin, Edith Emison, had taken her into their family. No longer the penniless daughter of an Irish army captain, she had become the ward of one of the highest ranking men in England, and Lady Anglesford had treated her in all things like the daughter she had never had. She had shared the same nursery with Haro and Torin, tortured the same governess, and tiptoed up to the same attic to hear crazy old Uncle Harold’s stories of adventures in days gone by.
She looked at Haro now with sisterly concern, striving to keep the apprehension out of her voice. “What on earth is Torin babbling on about?”
Haro gestured to a cushioned bench, and they sat down together. “We’ve had some shocking news from Mr. Godwin today…about Papa’s financial affairs.”
“He’s been dreadfully imprudent with his gambling stakes, making higher and higher wagers, especially in the last few years. The moneylenders are gathering like vultures, the estate is totally bankrupt, and, in short, everything must be sold to pay his debts.”
“I see.” It was even worse than his worried face had intimated. She had already resigned herself to the fact that, with her uncle’s death, her first experience of the London season must be cut woefully short. But now it sounded like its discontinuance was permanent.
She put her white hand on top of Haro’s and squeezed it with sympathetic pressure. “How is your mother handling the news?”
“As well as can be expected. But the greatest blow of all is Woldwick—it breaks her heart to think of selling it, and yet there is no other honorable option to raise the sum we need.”
“And are there dishonorable ones?”
He cast a sideways glance at her. “Yes, I suppose there are. But, Eda….” He looked away from her, and she noticed that his foot had begun to tap on the floor.
She pulled her hand away slowly, letting her fingers trace themselves over his knuckles. Then, rising to her feet, she walked over to the leaded window next to the front door.
He had never made a formal declaration to her—only oblique references to how much he admired her and enjoyed her company. The whole family, however, had accepted their eventual nuptials as a matter of course. Lady Anglesford had declared that their betrothal must not be solemnized until Eda had the chance to finish her first season. But it was Haro who had led Eda out for the first dance at her coming-out ball, and Haro who had escorted her to her first card party, and Haro who had kept her from yawning at her first assembly at Almack’s. Though he had never said it aloud, there had always been the security of knowing that she was first in one man’s heart and would one day assume the title of Lady Anglesford.
And now? What had he meant when he said that there were
Outside, it had begun to rain a little, and the clouds hinted ominously that the rain might soon change into sleet. “I suppose that’s what Torin meant—that you might wish to beg off?”
Rising to his feet, Haro opened his mouth in protest, but she cut in before he could speak. “And I don’t blame you in the least. It’s stormy outside, and likely to grow worse.” They were familiar enough with each other to understand that she was not speaking about the weather anymore.
Eda picked up the sable muff that would have kept away the chill on the drive through Hyde Park. “I daresay, that even together, we would neither of us be warm enough in the phaeton.”
She walked over to the stairs then looked back over her shoulder. “Good day, Lord Anglesford.” The title rang coldly between them like a coin dropped on the marble floor.
“Good day, Miss Swanycke,” he returned in a stiff voice, and she could not tell from her vantage point on the stairs whether the expression on his face was angry or pained.