As the Countess was leaving, she said, “You really should let those children outside, Elizabeth. They’ll tear the house down.”
Esther giggled and kissed her aunt and helped her into her carriage.
How lovely it was to have family again.
A half hour later, Lord Grainger came to pay a call. “There is always one man watching this house, usually two. Our ruse is necessary, it seems.”
Esther sighed. She had hoped that the man in the Park was an aberration.
“So we will proceed with our plan tomorrow. Your servant will leave with Horace. At two in the morning, I will have an unmarked carriage here to take you, Mrs. Nelson and the children to Berkshire. It will be warm. You should be able to sleep in it. Ferdie will go with you.”
“Are we watched in the evening?”
“Not after ten or so. Since you clearly are not ladies who go out in the evening, there is usually no one watching after that.”
She regarded him, a worried frown on her face. “I wish Ailesworth were here. Oh! Not that you–“
She remembered she was angry at Ailesworth and wished to break off her relationship. How could she do it? Not long distance. They’d need to have a blazing row when she saw him again.
It made her sad.
Drum wondered what caused the sadness to appear and disappear from her face.
“So tomorrow we send off Jessie with piles of trunks, some empty?”
He nodded. “To give the impression of a long visit, or a visit far away.”
“At two the following morning, an unmarked carriage will arrive and Alma and I and the children will board. Then we shall proceed to Elmscourt.”
“Yes. Here’s a reply to your letter to Lady Dunphy.”
Kay wrote she was delighted to see her and Mrs. Nelson early. She did like to have someone other than Dear John to talk to and she was eager to hear about their mystery, and Ailesworth’s children were of a perfect age to play with hers and how had he kept them a secret so long.
Esther sighed as she put the letter aside. “Kay thinks the children are his.”
Drum grinned. “In the ton, everyone does. Only when we find out who they are shall that idea die.”
In Southampton, Ailesworth’s temper was fraying more each day. He’d discovered that the books of the shipping firm were neigh unreadable. After the first couple of days of struggling with the son and the supervisor, Ailesworth demanded to see bank records. He was relieved to see a healthy balance and no irregular withdrawals, for he feared the supervisor might be so intransigent because he’d helped himself to some of the profits.
No such luck. Ailesworth was stuck with him. And the son. The son had inherited three quarters of the yard with one fourth going to the supervisor, “for twenty-five years of good work.”
So there was no other reason than contrariness for the present impasse. Ailesworth spent an hour in his room at a large, pleasant inn, drinking brandy and thinking. He could only come up with intimidation. It would work while he was here, but would it work after he left?
He wanted Esther. He ached for her. Just thinking of her soft body made him hard. He frowned when he remembered how she would not accept his ring. Then he smiled as he thought of his seed in her body. Surely she should be with child by now. Then she’d have to marry him. He’d sooth her after they were married, every day and every night.
There was no question in his mind but that he would marry her. He’d long since known and accepted that she was the one for him, forever. He had never been the rake he was accused of being, nor the beast. He’d never minded those rumors as they usually kept the doting mamas with their insipid daughters away from him. He’d been nicknamed The Beast when he came back from his voyages with his beard. He’d kept it clipped closely to his face and its red gold color had matched his hair then which he’d worn long. On one of his first forays at a ball in the ton, two girls had fainted at the sight of him. He’d been pleased. He decided to cultivate a growl and avoid tonnish occasions.
Once his hair had darkened, he cut off his beard and resembled a man again. But the nickname stuck. He’d been delighted when Esther once called him her beast.
As he began to strip off his jacket, he had a brainstorm. Two other ship owners had arrived the day before, concerned by rumors about the shipyard. Ailesworth rang his bell and waited impatiently for the maid.
When she came, he asked for the room numbers of the other two men. He had her wait while he scribbled a note to Hassam, asking him to send three burly men, one of whom could read and write. He’d put both of his plans into action.
As he walked down the hall to his first quarry, he reluctantly put thoughts of Esther aside. Time for business.
When the next day arrived, it was dull, overcast and smelling of snow. When Esther had to go out in the morning, the faint metallic scent in the air made her nervous. When she told Mrs. Batson about it, she said, “Snow. Snow’s coming.”
Esther bit her lip. Snow would not be good for their planned trips. Jessie, however, was wide-eyed with excitement about her journey. “Ma’am, can’t that footman, Horace ride in the carriage with me?”
“I don’t see why not. Particularly if it is snowing. Ask him.”
Horace appeared a few minutes later. “M’lady. I’d planned to ride in the carriage. At least part way.”
“Good. Mrs. Batson says snow is coming.”
“Yes’m. At least a foot, I thinks.”
Esther decided not to worry. It was enough to worry over unseen men watching. She went to help Alma with the children’s packing. Sally-Catherine had her valise all packed. Alma had offered to help her but Sally-Catherine preferred to do it herself.
“You’ll need extra outside garments, children, for playing in the snow.”
“Snow!” They looked at Esther and then at each other. “Is it going to snow?” Jim wanted to know.
“So says Mrs. Batson. And Horace.”
Jim was grinning and Sally-Catherine looked gleeful. “Have you ever made snow angels?” Alma asked.
They shook their heads.
Again a shake.
“Oh, what fun you’ll have. Lady Dunphy has a boy, Eric, Sally-Catherine’s age, and a girl, Clarissa, of five. You’ll have someone to build snowmen with.”
“And snow-ladies too,” added Sally-Catherine.
“Oh, my!” said Alma. “Sally-Catherine’s read Mary Wollstonecraft!”
“Who’s that, Alma?” Esther asked.
“The lady who wrote about women’s rights. I haven’t read her book but I read about it in the newspaper.”
Sally-Catherine looked as though she was contemplating her rights as Jim chattered on about snow and snowmen. “Is he nice?”
“Eric? Yes, I think so,” responded Esther. “ I know he’d like a playmate. And since you’re older, you can show him things.”
Jim looked altogether satisfied.
They could hear Jessie in her room above, packing an old carpetbag Esther had given her. It sounded like she was packing the bed and table too.
The women went downstairs for a warming cup of tea in the kitchen. Mrs. Batson had just pulled rolls out of the oven and they helped themself.
After they’d settled in the parlor with their tea and buttered rolls, Alma asked if there was any further news of their watchers.
“No, but I could feel eyes on me, even in the butcher shop. I’ll be glad when this is over.”
“But when will it be over?” Alma asked with a frown.
“I don’t know. If I could only talk to Ailesworth.”
Alma smiled at her. Esther had forgotten that Ailesworth was persona non grata. “Oh! That slippery willie!”
Alma burst into laughter. Didn’t Esther realize….
“Oh! I didn’t mean that!”
“Esther, a willie is a name for–“
”Yes! I imagine it is.” Esther tried to keep her frown but Alma’s laughter finally over took her. The two of them laughed themselves to a standstill.
“Well, nothing’s changed. But I feel better.”
Jessie left, all feet, falling over trunks until Horace told her to go wait in the carriage. She did and then catapulted out as she hadn’t said a proper goodbye to the family. She started crying and hugging Alma. Esther said sharply, “Don’t cry. They’ll think you’re going to the South Seas.”
“Now, Jessie,” Alma soothed her back, “you don’t want them to think you’ve been dismissed. Remember, you’re Mrs.Beryll’s ladies maid. Dignity, my dear.”
Jessie stopped sniffing and straightened her bonnet. She nodded and walked stiffly down the front stairs and up the carriage steps and into the carriage. Horace closed the door and climbed up next to the coachman. The carriage trundled off. For a second, Jessie’s woe-begone face appeared in the window.
The women went back to the children. Now that their plan was in motion, they felt more anxious rather than less. It was time for their lessons. Esther took Sally-Catherine downstairs for her reading and Alma did maths with Jim. Esther sat back on the settee once the supervised reading was over, and began telling Sally-Catherine stories she remembered Jessom teaching her from the bible.
“Wait, Mrs. Beryll. Wait till Jim comes,” and she did. The two of them sat side by side looking at the fire. Sally-Catherine whispered, “Thank you, Mrs. Beryll,” and then she turned her head into Esther’s shoulder.
“You are welcome, Sally-Catherine. It is our delight to have you and Jim here.”
Sally-Catherine nodded her head. Esther smiled. A hard-headed realist was wee Sally-Catherine.
Jim and Alma arrived and Esther told stories of King David and Ruth and King Solomon until it was suppertime.
Then they all went to bed in their clothes and tried to sleep. Esther woke to a pounding on the door. She rushed down while Alma went to get the children. Esther opened the door to Drum. “My lord!”
“Yes, I decided to come with you. I was going to ride behind to watch for followers, but I’ll ride inside with you instead. I checked–there’s no one around. My horse is tethered behind. Diplomat is not happy with that.”
The children arrived in the hall, all ready. Esther and Alma put on their warm cloaks. Mrs. Batson appeared behind them.
“You know what to do, Mrs. Batson, keep the fires and lights going for a couple of days and then go to your sisters.”
“Aye. Her young’un’ll be stayin’ with me. She’s that excited.”
They left exclaiming over the soft snow falling. Drum sat between the two children. There were hot bricks on the floor of the carriage and heavy fur blankets. Drum put an arm around each child and began giving them an edited version of his years on the Peninsula with Wellington’s troops.
* * *
Charles was packing his valise too. The horse Ailesworth had given him was a fine mount and Charles had enjoyed riding him about town. Men had even spoken to him about it. Luckily Ailesworth had sent a message as to the horse’s pedigree so Charles could sound as though he knew about his horse.
His valise packed, he had planned to leave in the morning until he saw the snow. He stood at the window a long while, staring out. How gentle it seemed. The candlelight caught snow flakes as they fell slowly, twisting and turning. Was it true that there were no two snow flakes alike? He didn’t want to believe it.
Step-Mama liked to go out walking in the snow. The Earl raged at her, saying she’d catch her death of a cold and die of inflammation of the lung. She tried to tell him that she wouldn’t because she was happiest woman on earth when she was out in the snow. Once, after such an exchange, Charles had caught them: the Earl standing close to his wife, staring down at her while she smiled up at him, her hand on his cheek. Charles had quietly turned and left.
Suddenly, he was homesick, so homesick he wanted to throw up. He needed to get North, to be with his family. He missed his sisters. And everything connected to Rathbone Hall.
He got up. Tomorrow he’d go and properly ask Ailesworth’s pardon for his stupidity. Then he’d leave for home.
Relief flooded him. He felt his body relax and a huge smile wreathed his face. He pulled the drapes shut, banked the fire, undressed and fell into bed, to sleep deeply and dreamlessly until late into the next morning.
* * *
Alex had found a draper who, though suspicious of Alex, agreed to make a few shirts. They had to be of inferior material, but at least they would be new.
He avoided his clubs as he was unwelcome there. He ate frugally, looking forward to Elmscourt. Two days after his meeting with Chastity’s father, he paid a morning call on her.
Chastity and her mother were sitting in their drawing room when he arrived. Mrs. Pringle had decorated her room in the Egyptian style: uncomfortable sofas had twining fighting snakes for legs and feet, the huge tables had sphinxes holding them up–nasty looking fellows–with smaller sphinxes on top of the tables. Everything was green. It felt like being on the bottom of a weed-filled pond, with crocodiles near. The crocodiles were near: stuffed crocodiles littered the floor.
“Oh, my dear Lord de Sable, I see you admiring my room. Everyone says they are transported to Egypt!”
At least, thought Alex, I don’t have to make my way around endless tables. “Mrs. Pringle, Miss Pringle. Your room is amazing, Mrs. Pringle. I feel I’m in a beautiful green pool.”
“With crocodiles,” he heard Chastity mutter.
“Oh, how glad I am to hear you say that! I thought that a man of your taste might find it a bit de trop,” which came out, “dee trap.”
Alex saw Chastity flinch.
“Quite impressive, Madam.” He turned to Chastity. “How do I find you, Miss Pringle?”
Her frown left her forehead and she raised her large, lovely eyes to his. “Very well, my lord. And you?”
“The same. Particularly since I….” He saw her face and stopped. “I always enjoy your company, Miss Pringle.”
Chastity didn’t enjoy empty flattery. She was pleased that de Sable had caught himself before telling her she had brightened his day.
It was easy to talk with Mrs. Pringle. She loved his gossip of the ton. Alex had to firmly say, after five minutes, “Mrs. Pringle, may I have a few minutes alone with your daughter.” He gave Chastity a languishing look which made her frown. Again.
“Oh! Oh! My lord! Of course. Chastity, I shall be in the library.” She turned to de Sable. “Not far away,” and she left, with the door wide open behind her.
Alex went and closed it part-way. He came back to stand in front of Chastity. He was about to go down on his knee when he decided he had done enough of that.
He took her hand in his and asked her, “Will you be my wife, Chastity?”
He had his mouth open to tell her he pined for her. He closed it with a click of his teeth and looked at her dumfounded. “You accept?”
“Yes, my lord. I decided if you asked me, I would accept immediately. I don’t like being a here-and-thereian.” She said the last with a smile.
He smiled. “A here-and-thereian, eh? What do you want to be, Chastity?” He stepped closer until he stood next to her. Then he stepped again and put his arms around her, slowly pulling her against him. She gasped and began to blush. He lowered his head to her and kissed her. Her lips were full, over-full perhaps, but they were delectable to kiss. He pulled her closer and traced the seam of her lips with his tongue. She gasped and his tongue went into her mouth: mint and honey.
Chastity was amazed at the kiss, his tongue gently swirling around her mouth and stroking her tongue. She felt herself leaning on him and his rod hard against her stomach.
Oh, my. She never thought–
“Lord de Sable! Chastity!” Her mother’s voice broke in on them. “What is this?”
Mrs. Pringle was angry as she came to stand beside them. She saw her daughter’s swollen lips and dazed eyes.
“Mrs. Pringle, your daughter has agreed to be my wife. I am the happiest of men,” and he would be once his erection went down.
Mrs. Pringle’s anger turned to joy. “Chastity!” She kissed her daughter on the cheek. “Go freshen yourself, darling. Tell Harnsworth to send in the tea.”
Chastity obediently left the room.
“Now, my lord, have you talked to Mr. Pringle yet?”
“I have, madam. I have his approval to pay court to your daughter. I am ecstatic that she accepted my offer. And I shall see Mr. Pringle again tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Today would be better.”
“Today it is. At his office, or–“
”His office. That’s where he does all his business, you see.”
“Of course.” Chastity’s marriage was business, particularly the business of the groom’s debts.
“Then you’ll be able to visit here any time you like.”
A heavily laden tea tray arrived followed by Chastity, looking much the same, except her eyes were no long dazed and her eyelids heavy. He caught her looking at his nether parts and concealed a smile. Listening to Mrs. Pringle give misinformation about the ton was enough to shrink any man’s member.
They sat and made a meal of tea. Alex was pleased to see that Chastity and Mrs. Pringle also ate heartily. He’d noticed that Maria and her mother seldom ate much at tea. It hadn’t stopped him, but he felt more comfortable here with companions of the table to join him. In fact, conversation stopped for a while, a faux pas of considerable magnitude.
He didn’t care. His path was set. Chastity would become his wife and if her response to his kiss proved anything, she would be a lusty bed partner. Her father was right.
Suddenly he was looking forward to being leg-shackled. It might be many months before he had to look elsewhere for his pleasure.
They finished their tea, Alex kissed Chastity’s hand, and departed to Mr. Pringle’s office, noticing the threat of snow in the air. Best to get it over with. He was leaving Tuesday for Elmscourt.
* * *
Ailesworth was on his way home. He and the other two shipowners had bought the shipyard. The son was pleased to have done with it, and they had left the supervisor happily shouting at the workers, telling them they were slackers and other less salubrious names. One of the new owners had stayed behind, pleased to have a job to do over the holiday season. Ailesworth hoped that the contract that had been drawn up for joint ownership was sound. He carried a copy and would have Wrigglesworth over it.
Did he want a ship yard? No, but there had seemed no way out. He now didn’t have very much available cash. If The Argonaut arrived whole and undamaged, he’d have a great deal of money. He wouldn’t have to cash in Esther’s ring, which still resided in his vest pocket.
He smiled and realized how cold he was. The air was heavy with promised snow. He could only hope it would wait till he arrived home. The small, rackety carriage he’d hired was painful to ride in. He’d do better on a horse.
He shouted to the driver to stop at the next inn. He’d dismiss him and continue on horseback.
The Countess was surprised to hear the Duke of Glastonbury announced as she took tea by a bright fire, screens around her to protect her from drafts. Duke William came shambling in, as untidy and soiled-looking as ever.
“Sit, William. Smithers will bring fresh tea. What brings you out on this wretched day?”
“Oh. Well. It’s this box, y’see.” He groped at a package in his lap, covered with what looked like dirty rags. He pulled out a rectangular box which fit comfortably in his hands. He gave it to his cousin. “Now, that old besom, the housekeeper, Mrs. What’s-her-name, gave it to me and I forgot it. Then I couldn’t find it. Now I have.”
The commodious tea tray arrived. The Countess could see William’s mouth water. She put the box aside and served him tea. She leaned forward and scooped meat sandwiches onto his plate. She averted her eyes and went back to studying the box. It had gotten dirty. She rang for Smithers. “Take this and clean it.”
She sipped her tea as she waited. She’d just about decided she’d have a toasted crumpet when William took the last one. Oh, well, an apple tart would do as well. She made sure she got two before they also disappeared.
Smithers brought the box back and presented it to his mistress.
How lovely. The multi-colored fine enameling had traceries of gold. On the top was a representation of Dramlee Park as it had been one hundred years ago when the Park had looked its finest. Hundreds of servant and gardeners and grooms had labored to keep it always looking fit for a king’s visit.
“It’s locked, William. Have you a key?”
“A key? No. Didn’t come with a key.”
“That’s too bad.” She turned it in her hand. It was light, no bulky treasure inside. She’d have Thomas deliver it to Esther. Perhaps she hadn’t left yet. Perhaps she should take it herself.
She gave a slight shiver. Not today. She found the sharp winter wind, particularly when it was laden with a promise of snow, hard on her bones. She would send Thomas.
She let William eat his fill and then started talking of old times, when the cousins knew each other as children and sometimes spent summers together. Yes, talking of summertime was lovely.
Thomas, after pounding on the door at Furth Street, was ready to give up, when he heard the lock turning and the door opened a sliver.
“Who be you?”
“I come from the Countess D’Aellen. I have something for Mrs. Beryll, Lady Elizabeth.”
“Oh.” The door opened revealing Mrs. Batson in her apron. “Come downstairs.”
“Where is Mrs. Beryll?”
“She’s gone to the country.”
Thomas wondered why he was going downstairs until he came into the warm kitchen.
“This here’s my niece, Cissie. Pay her no mind. Sit down and I’ll give you tea.”
He sat, glad to have a cup of tea, glad to get warm.
Cissie regarded him with big eyes, that got bigger when he took his greatcoat off and revealed his livery, gleaming silver against black. He was used to being ogled when he was in his livery. He was six feet, two inches and knew he presented a handsome sight.
Tea and a scone appeared in front of him. He waited to see if anyone joined him. Mrs. Batson poured herself and Cissie cups of tea and they sat at the table, Cissie at the end so she could continue to stare at Thomas.
They all ate companionably. “Now, what do you think of that scone, sir?”
“Grand. The best I’ve had, I think.” Maybe he’d get another. “Thomas is the name.”
“Oh, aunt, they are wunnerful.”
Mrs. Batson sniffed and pushed the plate of scones down the table to Thomas. She’d need to try them on the ladies when they returned. She’d tried to copy Mrs. Nelson’s recipe as far as possible, but she felt they weren’t quite right yet.
Thomas stood and picked up the box. “I’ll tell my lady that Mrs. Beryll was away from home.”
“No. Leave it. Lord Ailesworth will be by.” She regarded the box without much goodwill.
Thomas was undecided. She looked up at him and then put it on a high shelf in her larder. “It’ll be safe for Missus till she come back.”
Thomas nodded, thanked Mrs. Batson, nodded at Cissie, who blushed, and left. He’d see what his Mistress said.
At least he was warm.