Ailesworth encountered snow, big light flakes of it, before he entered London. Peculiar, but it felt warmer now that it was snowing.
He was tired and for once he was grateful for Chamber’s fussing. A hot bath took away the cold and the aches and a hearty supper finished the cure.
As he rose to go to Esther’s, Chambers presented him with a note. It was in Drum’s writing. He opened it to read that the family at Furth Street had left early for the Dunphys. Drum briefly described the man who’d caused the flight.
Ailesworth got up and paced. He saw it was too late to go to Furth Street to see what Mrs. Batson had to say. He looked out the window. The snow had stopped and ragged clouds moved swiftly against the moon. The streets were filthy: snow, snow melting, mud and water. He rang for Chambers. “When did this snow begin here?”
“It was snowing when I awoke at seven and it snowed all day, but lightly. It was bitter cold yesterday and now,” he shrugged, “it’s warmed up.”
“When did this note arrive?”
“Yesterday morning. One of Lord Grainger’s footmen.”
Ailesworth nodded. Too late to go to Furth Street or to go to the Dunphys. Besides, he had business to see to before he was free for the holidays.
He told Chamber to give him some brandy and he sat near the fire. He let his head go back against the head rest and his thoughts turned to Esther. How he had missed her! Perhaps, once they were married, he’d find a way to be less involved with his business. Certainly his father would be happy, to see him leading a life of idleness appropriate for the heir to an Earldom.
He smiled to himself. As if he could be idle. There was always his luscious Esther to love. And children to play with. As he thought of children, he felt a twinge of unease. He’d misled her. He’d hoped to trap her into matrimony by getting her with child, but now he realized that it was a stupid idea. His Esther was determined to be independent, at least for awhile, and he should have allowed her that.
Disturbed now, after the fact, he got up and began pacing the room. He’d have to tell her and ask her forgiveness. He drew his hand through his hair and felt it fall over his forehead. He needed a haircut. He needed some new clothes; Chambers had been moaning about how shabby some of his clothes were.
He had Chambers cut his hair. Time enough tomorrow to see if any watchers remained at Furth Street.
On their night time journey, the children fell asleep again just before dawn. The ladies followed. Drum remained awake. Sally-Catherine was lying on his lap. He rested a hand on each child. He felt like a hero now. He hadn’t felt that way while he was an agent behind enemy lines. Or after he arrived home and the celebrations were on. Now he’d arranged for the safety of only a family and felt strong and noble.
He stifled a laugh. He’d never felt noble in is life. It must be one of those characteristics others attributed to you. He’d felt arrogant. That was a useful attitude to have, to put down one’s inferiors. He sobered. Who was his inferior? Mrs. Nelson? He’d always thought there was something smoky about her past.
He looked at her. The faint light from the lamp near her head showed him her face and neck, as her head rested against the squabs. What a glorious profile she had! She’d taken her bonnet off and tendrils of her silver-blonde hair fell against her cheek and neck. His eyes traveled down her neck slowly, as though he were kissing every inch of it. His gaze rested on the opening of her cloak and the neckline of her dress. It was modest enough, but her full breasts revealed themselves in the bodice of her dress. They filled the bodice and he thought he discerned just a hint of the dark valley between them. For some reason, he’d always found that cleavage, particularly if only hinted at, very arousing. He’d been caught more than once closely examining a woman’s cleavage. And since it was usually a modest woman who’d caught him, he’d been embarrassed.
But here he could feast his senses. She was a beautiful, voluptuous woman. He hadn’t realized before because of her lively, friendly personality. What was her history? He must ask Ailesworth.
He released the children and tapped on the roof of the carnage. Time for reconnaissance.
* * *
Miss Castle and Lord Harmon spent every afternoon together. He usually had his brother’s rig and cattle, but often it was too cold for much or any riding. Harmon wanted the beauty of Christmas to be the background for his proposal but as time passed, and he and Maria felt more comfortable together–though it was getting hard to conceal his desire for her–he realized that Mrs. Castle was becoming agitated.
He must propose today. He’d do it again at Elmscourt–an official proposal. This one would just be in the family.
After a handsome tea, the cold threat of snow making them all hungry, he rose and addressed Mrs. Castle.
“Ma’am, may I be alone with Miss Castle? With the door open, of course.”
“Oh, my lord, of course. I’ll be nearby, Maria,” and she gave her daughter a significant glance. She tiptoed out of the room. She’d removed one table since the debacle with Lord de Sable, and felt the room to be cleared up considerably. Harmon, not as graceful as de Sable, usually had to save one table from pitching into another. Occasionally he knocked over a table and didn’t notice, if he was focused on Maria standing by the fireplace.
He wondered at that pointed glance Mrs. Castle had sent to Maria, then he moved to where Maria sat. He took her hands and raised her up. “Will you marry me, Maria? I was interested, you know, the very first time I saw you across the Henwhistle’s ballroom. What a beauty, I thought, as I made my way through the people. What a lively beauty, I amended as I watched you.
“What a delight you were, full of life and sparkle. Over the weeks, I saw you befriend Miss West And Miss Dunsdale, two wallflowers who were plainly unhappy. As I watched them come to life in the glow of your friendship, I saw them begin to dance and even have suitors of their own.
“So, besides being beautiful and full of happy life, you’re a kind friend. Will you be a kind friend to me and marry me?”
“Yes,” she replied as Mrs. Castle poked her head into the room and quickly withdrew it.
Harmon grinned, a huge happy grin at making Maria his and made wider by the sight of Mrs. Castle’s turban quickly popping in and out. He gathered her into his arms, slowly. Her arms came up to encircle his neck. He leaned down to kiss her.
How different from de Sable: his kiss was hard and unpleasant. Harmon’s was sweet. His lips kept moving over hers, slanting different ways. His tongue lightly traced her lips. She opened her lips. He delicately touched her teeth and then her tongue.
Oh! She fell boneless against him. He tightened his arms for a minute and then released her, holding her up.
Her eyes were dazed, her lips red and swollen. Oh, what a lover she would be.
He couldn’t let her go so he kept her loosely in his arms, and smiled tenderly at her. Then it turned into a grin at her bemused expression.
Mrs. Castle’s head appeared again, this time followed by the rest of her. “My lord? Maria?”
“Wish me the best, Mrs. Castle. Maria has agreed to marry me.”
Mrs. Castle fell into words of delight and happiness and downright glee.
“Mrs. Castle, I would like to delay making this betrothal official until we are all at the Dunphys. I don’t have the family ring I want yet, and it will be more, will be more–“
”Romantic,” breathed Mrs. Castle. “A Christmas betrothal.”
“Yes, Mama.” Maria leaned to whisper in her mother’s ear. “Get control of yourself.”
Mrs. Castle straightened her turban. “You’ll see Mr. Castle, of course.”
“Of course. Today.” He still held Maria’s hand. He gave it a squeeze and let it go. “I could not postpone making her mine now. I didn’t want any of those fribbles making off with her,” and he grinned down at Maria.
“Oh, good heavens, my lord, as if that were true. Why Maria has said–“ Then she caught Maria’s stern eye and sputtered to a close.
“I shall leave you then,” and he picked up Maria’s hand and kissed it. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Finally, he felt his nether regions were where they should be. It wouldn’t do for Mrs. Castle to see his manly bulge.
He bowed his way out, knocking over one table. He left happily for Mr. Castle’s office, ignoring the heavy threat of snow in the air.
* * *
At the next stop for breakfast, Drum reported to Esther that it appeared that they had no followers. Esther breathed a sigh of relief. “Do the children have time for a frolic after breakfast?”
“Of course. I’ll frolic with them.”
The snow and wind had stopped. Everything was white and when the sun peeked out, the landscape was covered with diamond dust. The children oh-ed and ah-ed and Alma had to push them a bit to get them into the inn. The landlord provided a full breakfast and kept bringing more. For Drum he brought rare roast beef, for the ladies, shirred eggs and bacon, and for the children, individual egg cups and buttered toast, folded into peaks like a napkin and served in a cup. Sally-Catherine had much pleasure in unfolding hers. She looked inside and seemed disappointed there was nothing there. Drum noted her expression. He leaned over and said, “Put some marmalade inside. Then you’ll have a treasure.”
She did, carefully putting it back into the cup it had come in. Then she pulled it out again and smiled at the golden, glistening center.
Luckily this all passed without Jim’s notice. Esther was helping him cut his roast beef. He’d finished his egg and asked for some of Drum’s beefsteak. Since the slice was huge, Drum gave him a substantial piece. But cutting it was another thing. Esther was speaking low to him as she cut. Then she handed the knife to Jim. He tried and managed to cut off a piece.
Esther feared for his fingers and suggested they wait for another lesson. Jim nodded, as he already had his mouth full. Esther put a piece of toast on his plate as she went back to her own plate. She sighed. “This food is wonderful. Too bad we can’t stay here a week. And warm. Lovely and warm.”
Drum agreed. He waited until everyone had enough to eat–Jim was goggle-eyed with that beef in his belly–and then ordered them to mount up.
Drum asked the inn keeper how far they were from Elmscourt. The innkeeper looked surprised. “My lord, you’ve gone off the path a bit. The next time you come to an intersection like, take a left. That will put you on the road to Elmscourt.”
“We must have taken a wrong turn in the snow.”
“Easy to do, my lord. But these here roads is a bit bumpy and such. Holes, y’know.”
“I’ll warn my coachman.” He tipped the man generously and left. He had a word with his coachman and climbed into the carriage. There were warm bricks on the floor. He sat between the children and put an arm around Sally-Catherine. She snuggled next to him.
Before Jim could ask for more war stories, Esther said, “What memories of Christmas and snow do you have, Alma?”
Alma was happy to talk of her girlhood in the country. She thought she’d have to search for memories to tell the children, but she didn’t. She was telling them of how their cook allowed them to take hot sugar syrup outside to dribble in fresh snow for instant candy, when the carriage lurched and a faint crack was heard.
Drum vaulted out of the carriage and they could hear his voice, along with that of the coachman and Ferdie.
“What is it? What broke?”
A stream of profanities came from the coachman. “A crack in the axle” and he was muttering again.
“Are the horses reliable, John?”
“The first pair seem a little frisky to me.”
“Let’s unharness them,” they were already doing it, “and see if the ladies are up to a morning ride.”
He left them to it and pulled open the carriage door. The carriage was tilted a little. Alma had taken his seat and had her arm around a wide-eyed Sally-Catherine.
“Are you up to a ride this lovely morning? Our axle cracked on this abominable road.”
“Yes, Lord Grainger. Shall we each take a child before us?” Esther replied
Her eyes were bright. Alma looked a little apprehensive.
“Are you not feeling quite up to it, Mrs. Nelson? Three of us can ride on Diplomat. He’s a sturdy horse.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, my lord.”
“We’ll put Jim with Mrs. Beryll, to ease the weight on Diplomat.”
Jim looked disappointed but said nothing. He’d been admiring Diplomat.
All the horses were unhitched and the coachman brought two forward.
“We only need one, John.” He assisted Mrs. Beryll onto the wide back of one of the carriage horses. Then he handed Jim up. He took Diplomat and assisted Mrs. Nelson, mounted and held out his arms for Sally-Catherine, whom he deposited in front of him.
They started out at a leisurely pace to return to the Inn. Suddenly Esther didn’t mind. The day was glorious, the snow glittered all around them and the wind was unexpectedly from the South. Jim gripped her waist. She turned her face up to greet the sun.
Ailesworth had tried Esther’s house but there was no answer. As he came down the steps, a cheeky young boy said, “They be gone.”
“When did they leave?” as the reached in his pocket for a coin.
“Dunno. Mysterious like.”
Ailesworth jingled the coins. “What day was this?”
“Weren’t a day. Left in the night. Last night, Cook says.”
“They left yesterday evening?”
“No! I be tellin’ ya! They left at night, in the middle of the night. It’s cause of that man in t’ park, I say!”
“What man in the park?” Ailesworth wanted to hear of him.
Barty heard the sound of coins. “They saw a bad’un followin’ them in the Park. Mrs. B must ha’ flown the coop. I would too wid him–“
Ailesworth didn’t like his Esther referred to as “Mrs B.” H advanced on Barty who gave a squeak. He was too terrified to run. Just then, the front door flew open and the cook stood there. “Oh, my lord, Barty! Get away; you good-for-nothing1″
Ailesworth flipped the boy a shilling and watched his eyes grow round. He turned and climbed the steps and came into the cold front hall. “Oh, my lord, they’ve gone, you know. That Barty, he–“
Why did they leave in the middle of the night?”
“It were that man, of course.” She turned and started towards the back stairs. “The Misses was that afraid of him and those two dears, they–“
”Were the children harmed?”
“No, no, my lord. But they saw him too. So Lord Grainger came and took them away. In two stages, so to speak.”
Ailesworth now had a cup of tea and a plate of scones in front of him. “Mrs. Batson, would you start from the beginning?” H sat and pulled the scones over.
She told him the story with embellishments.
“So they finally left last night.”
“Yes, my lord. At two in the morning. In the snow. I felt that anxious for them youngsters, havin’ to go out in the middle of the night like that. Too excitin’ for ‘em,” she added.
As Ailesworth demolished a third scone, he thought the youngsters would love the excitement. He absentmindedly drank another cup of tea and then noticed Mrs. Batson looking at him with a little anxiety. “What is it? Is there something you haven’t told me?”
“No, sir. It’s those scones. I wondered how you liked them.”
“Delicious, apparently. I think I ate three.”
“But how do they compare, my lord, to Mrs. Nelson’s?”
He hadn’t realized that Mrs. Nelson made the scones he ate at tea. Because he was consumed with Esther when he drank his tea, he never noticed what he ate.
“I’d say they were better, just a slight bit better.”
She beamed. “Ay, I think so too. But I wouldn’t tell her.”
“Oh, no, we won’t tell her.” He rose to go.
“Oh, my lord! I nearly forgot. Her box,” and she went to the pantry. “The Countess’s man delivered this for Mrs Beryll. Perhaps it’s important,” and she handed him the box. “The footman said t’Duke gave it to her.”
“Um, it’d be the Misses’ cousin, Duke William.”
“He must be cleaning out his box room, to be finding all these treasures for Esther.” He took it and left Furth Street.
Now what? He very strongly wanted to follow the carriages that had left, to protect Esther and the children. But Drum was capable of that.
He’d send a note to Elmscourt and spend at least a day on business. The papers dealing with that shipyard needed to be dealt with. He could wait another day for Esther.
At the Inn, the children begged to go out. Alma made them change their clothes in the bedroom Drum had hired. Then she and Esther went out with them to find a field to make snow angels. There was a hay field across from the Inn. Grass was important so they’d not get dirty.
Alma carefully lay down. The children plopped down beside her, grins wide.
“Now, here is how you make the wings,” and she moved her arms up and down, “and here is how you make their….”
Esther hid a grin. It was a skirt but Jim would never–
“Their bottom part. See, now Sally-Catherine would make a wide skirt,” and she swung her legs out and back. She needed Esther’s hand to get up. Esther brushed the snow off her back.
The children were vigorously making angels, leaping up, crying to the other to see how good they were, and plopping down in a new spot.
“I’d better go and order hot water for them” Esther said after she admired the angels. Sally-Catherine was carefully making her angels and adding snowballs to their skirts for decorations. Jim had started a snowman.
At Elmscourt, Kay had received Ailesworth’s note. “John, pay attention, John. Here’s a note from Ailesworth. He says he’ll be here in a day or two, ‘to join you and Mrs. Beryll and her family.’ John, they aren’t here, Esther and such. What should I do?”
As she truly sounded bewildered, John looked up from his ledgers. “Do? What’s there to do? Mrs. Beryll is late, but as there’s no blizzard or sand storm or highwaymen–“
”Highwayman! She’s been taken by a highwayman. They heard of her diamonds and have kidnaped her.”
John shook his head and went back to his ledgers.
Kay left the room determined to inform Ailesworth.
Ailesworth received her incoherent note the next day. He’d needed to spend more time at his office than he wanted to. His solicitor was not happy with the way the ownership papers for the shipyard were drawn up, not happy at all. Ailesworth decided to hold his impatience in check and see the business done.
Kay seemed to be saying, beyond the simple message that Esther was a day late, that it was likely highwaymen had kidnaped her for her diamonds. Ailesworth smiled. He knew that Drum had accompanied them and Lady Dunphy did not.
He’s best send her a note, calming her fears. He’d no idea she was such a fearful woman. She must think Esther had kept the diamonds. He’d leave it up to Esther to explain that. But he’d tell her that Lord Grainger was with Esther. They were probably there now.
He leaned back in his chair and thought of Esther. Hassam was busy in the warehouse so he was alone to indulge himself. He saw her lustrous, thick hair, her sloe eyes, heavily lidded with desire. His hands, in his fantasy, ran down her shoulders and arms–so smooth, like a fine set of pearls he’d once examined.
‘Od’s blood! He wanted to give her some priceless jewel. That pearl necklace, was it still available? It was at Arnwassers, so glorious, lying on a bed of black velvet. He’d seen it a year ago, before he met Esther.
But he didn’t have two thousand pounds.
He’d go and look at it. He ran down the stairs shouting to Hassam to say he’d be back. Hassam was interrupted in a spate of Persian swear words directed to the dockers. His retreat into Persian got them to work harder again. It was a signal to get back to work or be docked of pay.
Ailesworth found a hackney and jumped in. Finally his privy member was quiescent again. As much as he wanted to think of Esther, he couldn’t walk around with his staff on point.
Pearls, think pearls. And money.
The clerk at Arnwasser’s didn’t remember Ailesworth and didn’t know of any pearls of a year ago. The ones he showed Ailesworth were not the correct strand. Arnwasser appeared and bowed to Ailesworth. “My lord, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
“Mr. Arnwasser. You sold those pearls I looked at a year ago. Did you?”
Arnwasser paused. “Oh, those pearls. Come with me,” and he turned to enter the back of the store. Arnwasser went to his safe and returned to the table with a parcel of black velvet in his hand.
“Be seated, my lord.”
Ailesworth sat and watched. The velvet was carefully opened and the string of pearls lay there. They were as he remembered them, a luster to them that would echo Esther’s skin.
“You never sold them, then?”
“No, I did. But the gentleman who bought them had some difficulties. He gave them to his lady-bird, a rather flamboyant bird and she broke them one day. He returned them to me for restringing. They needed cleaning.” He raised his brows, adding, “Cheap powder and rouge,” with a slight moue of disgust.
“However, there was one missing. I informed him of it and he searched his lady friends’s rooms. It could not be found. He discovered she’d hidden it away. He took it and brought it to me.
“The next day the bailiffs arrested him and put him in the sponging house. He sent me an incoherent note, asking me to keep the necklace hidden from the bailiff. As if I would do anything so low as to hand it over to them! A month later he used the value of the pearls, minus my commission, of course, to help get himself out of gaol. He left the country right after.
“For some reason, I’ve held them back. You are interested, my lord?”
“Very interested. But my hoard of ready cash went this week to buy one third of a shipyard.”
Arnwasser sat back and tapped a long finger on the table. “Would you exchange a share in that or your shipping company for the pearls?”
Ailesworth looked interested.
“I have too much of my money tied up in the same,” his hand swept the table were the pearls and some other jewelry lay, “the same industry, so to speak. My brother-in-law recommended that I branch out. Easier said than done.”
Ailesworth sat with the pearls in his hands. Finally he nodded. “That can be done. It had best be a share of my shipping company. My partner would agree. And I’ll see him soon.
“Agreed,” and he held out his hand which Arnwasser took to shake. “I’ll have the paper work–“
”No hurry, my lord. Perhaps you want to enjoy the holidays first.”Arnwasser picked up the pearls and gently put them back in the velvet bag.
Ailesworth held it in his hand. “An