Geoffrey Chisholm stood at the front door of his London townhouse, his hands fumbling with the key to the heavy brass lock. The thick fog dampened his hair as he leaned slightly away from the door, allowing the newly installed gaslight to illuminate his task. He was not having an easy time of it. He was not only tired from the lateness of the hour, past three in the morning, but also annoyed by the activities that had preceded his return home.
He had left Emma, his most current paramour, with an expensive sapphire bracelet while she had gifted him with an earful of descriptive expletives showered upon his head due to the finality of his attentions.
He brushed a lock of wet hair away from his eyes as he contemplated his plight and struggled with the key.
He seemed to have lost his interest in the vast majority of the opposite sex. Past paramours were so jaded, he no longer found their company amusing. More to the point, the sexual encounters were less satisfying, devoid of passion. And, of course, the available ladies of the Marriage Market were no more than flighty young girls with nothing better to offer him than their availability for the state of wedded bliss and the possible misconception they were still untouched.
Finally the key slid into place and the tumblers released the latch. He pushed the door open to find a single candle lit and at rest upon the foyer’s mahogany demi-lune table. He laid his keys upon the silver salver, flinching from the jangle they made, then jumped slightly when he heard a snort from behind him.
He jerked to discover his butler rousing from sleep.
“What are you doing up, Barton? I gave explicit instructions neither you nor the others should await my return. Now off with you. I can see myself to bed.”
“Sorry, sir, I had gone to bed earlier, but you have a visitor.” Barton rose from the burgundy damask chair he had requisitioned from the dining room and bowed slightly. His bright red hair was uncombed, his clothes rumpled and misbuttoned. His eyes, still half-closed, were glazed and bloodshot. He had not had a good night either. “A solicitor waits upon you in the library. Refused to hold off ’til tomorrow, er, later today. I gave him a glass of brandy, sir. He has been here at least an hour, maybe longer, as I fell asleep and lost track of the time. Shall I see you to the library, sir?”
“Nonsense, Barton. I hardly need escort to my own library. Put that confounded chair back where it belongs and go to bed. I’ll see what this idiot wants that cannot wait until civilized people have risen to meet a new day. Be off with you.”
Geoffrey turned away from his manservant and strode down the highly polished black and white marble floor toward his library. His heels clicked against the unforgiving surface.
He arrived at the door and entered without ceremony, catching his uninvited guest napping before the rekindled fire Barton must have laid for him. The man’s elbow slipped from the arm of his chair, one of two hunter-green velvet wingbacks placed before the hearth. The interloper did not, however, fall to the floor from his lack of balance. He caught himself, jumped to his feet, then whirled around to face his host.
“Excuse me, Mr. Chisholm. I regret I must intrude at such a late hour. It is critical you know immediately.” Running his hand through a thin patch of hair, a mixed shade of sand and silver, the visitor pulled his rumpled, brocaded grey waistcoat down over his protruding mid-section and smoothed his dark blue and grey jacket over that.
“It’s after three in the morning. Get on with it. My patience wears thin. Who are you and what the devil do you want?” Geoffrey demanded.
“I beg pardon, sir. I am Randall Sessions, solicitor to your cousin, Ronald Chisholm, Marquess of Colburn. I have come to tell you, sir . . . That is, it is necessary that you know . . .” he stammered.
“Enough. Out with it.”
“Your cousin is dead, sir. You are now the marquess of Colburn,” came the frazzled man’s astonishing reply.
“Dead? Ronald dead? That is ludicrous. I saw him less than a fortnight ago and he was fit as a fiddle. I was teasing him about taking a wife and begetting himself an heir. Dead? What in the world felled a man of only a score and ten years in full health?”
“Typhoid fever, my lord.” Sessions answered, using the more proper address now that the transfer of title had been announced. “Evidently the marquess drank from a fouled stream while on his way home from visiting one of the other villages in the area. The local doctor did everything he could, but the bleedings and purges did naught to save him. As you know, he has no direct heir, which leaves the estate and all of its holdings to you. You are next in line.”
Geoffrey moved deeper into the room, then sat down abruptly in the remaining chair. He put his head in his hands and groaned deeply. His voice cracked as he said, “Title? I don’t want the bloody title. I never wanted the bloody title.”
Dear Lord, this wasn’t supposed to happen. He knew nothing of the Colburn estates. Ronald had assured him he had a prospective wife in mind and it would only be a matter of a year or two before his succession was assured. Looking up at Sessions, he inquired, “Are you sure it is I who should succeed him? Might there be some other who will claim the right?”
“You are the last male of the line. There are no others, my lord. If not for you, the title would go unclaimed.”
Sessions fumbled in his pocket for his handkerchief, then mopped a sweating brow. It was warm in the room, but not that warm.
“And, there is more yet to tell. I am afraid the finances have been left in quite a mess. The marquess was a kind and generous man but did not have the head for business, so to speak. His tenant farms are in desperate need of repairs and the household itself a near state of disaster. You will need to leave as soon as possible to take control of the situation.”
“This just cannot be,” Geoffrey said, still raking his hands through his hair.
“I have all of the paperwork here for you to review. I will also need some signatures. I can accompany you, if you like,” Geoffrey’s new solicitor offered.
Resignation tinting his voice, Geoffrey said, “Let me see the papers. You will not need to return with me. I have successfully run my own affairs for some time now.” But he had no desire to run another’s. He had no responsibilities and he wanted none. And now he had everything he never wanted. Lands, a title, and desperate need of a legitimate heir.
And that required leg-shackling for sure.
Geoffrey took the sheaf the solicitor handed him and headed for his desk. In a matter of minutes, he had become head of the family and a Marquess. Now it fell to him to save whatever fortunes there might be and, worst of all, to find a legitimate way to pass on the family titles.
It took Geoffrey two days’ time to prepare himself and arrive at Colburn Park. He dismounted his horse and strode up the steps with a combination of grief, anger, and purpose. The front door opened before him.
Graham bowed low as he said, “Welcome home, my lord.”
The butler had been at the manse longer than Geoffrey had been alive. He had lost none of his propriety though his wiry frame and silvered hair attested to his longevity.
“Stand up, man, before you throw out your back. You’ve known me long enough to know I need not such a deep courtesy as that.”
The butler stood up to look him straight in the face with a twinkle in his grey eyes.
Geoffrey took off his hat, then peeled off his gloves, throwing them into the crown as he handed them off. Then, as he moved deeper into the house, he nearly tripped over a maid.
“Good heavens, girl, what the devil are you doing there?”
The girl, who couldn’t be much past seventeen, sat back on her heels. Geoffrey was most surprised to see that she was heavy with child. She looked as if she might drop the babe right there on the foyer floor. A bustle of activity from down the hallway brought Mrs. Nash, the housekeeper, from behind the baize door.
“I’m so sorry, my lord. We had hoped to have this all cleaned up and set to rights before you arrived. Brenda, get out of his lordship’s way. You can finish when he’s done here.” The housekeeper settled her fists on her generous hips as she glared down upon the maid.
“Mrs. Nash, you are aware this girl is near her time, is she not? What the hell is she doing scrubbing the floor?”
“She is due soon, my lord. But the child is without a father and she needs the money to care for herself and the babe.”
“Be that as it may, find her something less strenuous to do and bring someone else to finish this job. I am surprised at you, Mrs. Nash. I would not have expected you to be so callous.”
“She begged me for the job, my lord. I felt I should give it to her for the child’s sake. With so much to do to prepare for your return, this was the task she was given.”
“Brenda, is that your name?”
The girl, still on her knees, looked up with wide brown eyes and a frown on her face as she nodded.
“Let me help you up. Then go to the kitchen, have a cup of tea. Mrs. Nash will be right in to give you something else to do.” He bent over, took a work-roughened red hand in his, and eased her from her knees. “Now tell me, girl, who is the father of your child? Let us see if he cannot help you out.”
Horror flew to the young woman’s face. “No, no, my lord, he cannot help me. He has his mother and siblings to support. I can’t tell you as he won’t speak for me.”
Seeing the girl’s discomfort, Geoffrey decided it would be best to pursue this course at a later time. It would only be right the father take some responsibility for the girl and child’s welfare. After all, he had gotten her into this fix.
“Very well, Brenda. Go off for some tea now. Mrs. Nash will deal with you shortly.” Brenda made a small, labored curtsey before going through the baize door.
Geoffrey turned to his housekeeper, but before he could say a word she curtsied respectfully and said, “Welcome home, my lord. The staff is pleased to have you back though we are not happy about the circumstances. We have tried our best to put the house in order but await your instructions. The late marquess was somewhat relieved in knowing it would be you who would take up the mantle of the estates and family. He asked me to give you his best wishes and advised you solve the heir problem in a nonce. He most regretted he had not taken care of that business early. I must admit, he did try to court one of the ladies in the area, but she would have none of it.”
Before she could prattle on, Geoffrey interrupted, “Thank you, Mrs. Nash. I, too, am most disappointed about my cousin’s passing. I will endeavor to do the best I can in his stead. I am sure it will take me a few days to review the records he has left behind and get used to the routine from this perspective. In the meantime, go on as you have. But first, see to Brenda. Keep her working so she can be paid but give her only the lightest duty. I dare not think of what would happen to her if she overdid herself. She is in my charge if she is to work here and I will not have her nor any of the staff treated poorly. Now, what do you know of the father?”
“Why, nothing, my lord. She will not say, no matter how many times I’ve asked. I’m at a total loss.”
“Very well. I will look into it more in the near future. You may go.”
Mrs. Nash gave another curtsey, then left the hallway through the same baize door.
Hearing a throat clear behind him, Geoffrey turned back to the butler. “I know not how you do it, Graham. You stood there as still as a post through the entire scene and managed to say not a word. I take it you have something to say now?”
“I do, my lord.” The twinkle was back in the butler’s eyes. “I believe the young man in question is a member of this household, though I have, as yet, not been able to discern who.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The maid has worked for us only about a year, and she has hardly left the premises even on her days off. She sticks close always. Mrs. Nash feels she has nowhere else to go.”
“Then, Graham, I wish you to continue your investigation and let me know who the culprit is. In the meantime, I will go up to my usual room.” Graham made a move to remonstrate, but Geoffrey raised his hand to quell the butler’s protest. “Say nothing at this time. I will go to my usual room to freshen up. I will move to the master bedchamber when my valet and personal things arrive in the next few days. Please have some fresh water and linens put up for me immediately.”
Geoffrey turned and headed toward the stairs, hearing Graham’s respectful, “Yes, my lord,” as he retired.
This is the third book in theThe Order of The Crimson Lotus Series.
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