Chapter 8

De Sable’s appearance the next day, a clear sunny one, was elegant. He’d been a little alarmed to discover some fraying on the collars of two of his shirts. He’d cast them aside with a frown and a complaint. His valet, Smedley, said nothing. He picked up the shirts. Those collars could perhaps be turned but he’d achieved his aim: to remind his lord of his empty pockets. Smedley hadn’t been paid in two months and was contemplating a change in employment. But Lord de Sable was such a fine figure to dress. A shame there was no money. Smedley had heard rumors of a wealthy widow but he heard nothing to make him feel very secure.

De Sable was on his way to call on Esther. He’d finally pried the source of Esther’s fortune out of George. George was like a clam: he was always reluctant to share any news with anybody. As De Sable walked towards a cab stand, he wondered how to tell Mrs. Beryll. Then he thought of his shirts. What was he going to do for blunt to buy more shirts? And everything. He needed everything. He suppressed that thought quickly. He didn’t want to appear desperate.

Esther was home. Jessie showed him into the parlor. He wondered why she frowned at him.

Esther was busy upstairs when Jessie brought de Sable’s card up. “Oh, bother. Will that man ever leave me alone. And Alma gone out.

“Jessie, ask Mrs. Nelson, when she returns, to join me in the parlor. And bring tea.”

Jessie nodded and tramped down the stairs. Esther took her time fixing her hair and straightening her gown.

As she walked into the parlor, de Sable was standing by the mantle, all careless grace.

“Mrs. Beryl, your servant,” and he bowed deeply.

He did have an elegant bow.

“Lord de Sable. Please, be seated,” as she sank onto the settee.

“Madam, I prefer to stand. Or should I call you ‘my lady’?”

Esther’s back grew rigid. “I am Mrs. Beryll, my lord.”

De Sable had planned the next part. He threw himself on his knees in front of her and grasped her hand.

“Oh, Esther! I am so happy to be the one to tell you of your fortune.” He wouldn’t let her hand go. “As the man who loves you deeply, I am proud to be able to tell you of your good fortune. And to plan our future together.”

That sounded too stiff. He continued. “I have loved you from the moment I met you. I can not live without you.”

There. That should do it.

“Lord de Sable, release my hand.”

It was the Duke’s daughter who spoke and de Sable loosened his grip.

Esther pointed to the chair opposite. “Sit. There. Compose yourself and tell me what jackanapes, humgudgeon fortune you’re talking about.”

De Sable had recovered himself as he sat, pulling his waistcoat down, checking his pantaloons to be sure they were still spotless. His speech was sufficiently moving, he felt, but his nether regions were clearly not interested. That would change, of course, when he had Esther in his bed.

“Mrs. Beryll! It is no fol-da-rol. The Countess D’Aellen is looking for you. Her son has gone abroad in flight from the Magistrate and she…. Esther, are you all right?” He went on one knee and gently took her hand. She was white and appeared to have turned to stone.

He leaped to his feet and opened the door, shouting, “Maid! Where are….”

He nearly collided with Jessie bring in the tea tray.

“Hurry. Your mistress needs you.”

Jessie clattered the tray down on the table and took her mistress’ hands and chafed them, crying, “Oh, Mrs. B., oh, Mrs. B., do come round!”

Esther collected herself to find Jessie rubbing the skin off her hands and de Sable bending over her.

It was this scene that Alma encountered as walked into the parlor. “What is it?”

“Thank you, Jessie. I’m fine now. Lord de Sable, please, take your seat. I’m sure the tea will revive me,” and she leaned over to raise the teapot.

Alma stopped her hand. “No, dear, I’ll do it,” and poured out three cups of tea. “Thank you, Jessie. You may go.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” and she departed with a horrendous frown at de Sable, which startled him.

“Now just drink this, Esther. We can wait to talk of it,” and she turned to Lord de Sable to talk of the weather.

He recovered himself nicely, although he kept his eyes on Esther, who drank her tea with care.

When she finished, she put her cup down and staid, “Now, my lord, where did you hear this rumor?”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Beryll, but it is no rumor. I heard it from, well, someone heard it from an employee of Carruthers and Smythe. Ma’am, they are looking for you. The Countess D’Aellen is searching for you. In fact, she is at her town house now. Beaumont killed a man in a duel, a dreadful fellow, always fleecing young men fresh from University, deserved to die, caused one suicide.” He cleared his throat.

“At any rate, Beaumont’s gone, gone to Naples I think. Or was it Baden?” He knew he was rambling but Esther’s basilisk stare was unnerving.

“My aunt, my lord.”

“Yes! The Countess realizes she has misplaced you over the years and wants to make amends. I think she wants to adopt you.”

“Adopt me!”

De Sable was rambling. He had to get a grip on himself.

“Mrs. Beryll, if you present yourself to the Countess, I am sure you will learn all.”

Esther seemed to be locked in a dream. She was still, her eyes seeing inward. Alma and de Sable remained silent and watchful. Alma would have been content to wait for Esther to recover herself, but de Sable was too anxious.

“Madame! If you could consider my offer, I am sure it will bring much joy to us both.”

He stood. Esther came to herself and rose. “I thank you for this news and bid you good day, my lord.”

Alma moved to show him to the door. He dare not stay. Esther had become Lady Elizabeth and it unnerved him. He bowed and departed.

Alma returned. She sat and picked up her friend’s hand. “Esther. Are you all right?”

Esther stirred herself. “Yes, Alma. It’s just that his mention of my aunt brought it all back. You know,” turning to Alma, “I’d forgotten her! Isn’t that strange? My last year at Dramlee Park was so dreadful, that I’d forgotten almost anything connected to it.

“She was imperious. She should have been the Duke. Back ramrod straight, her black hair always beautifully dressed, and diamonds. She always wore a diamond ring as big as my hand, or so I thought when I was little and was presented to her to make my curtsey.

“Then–back to the nursery. How strange, to remember her.” Esther turned to Alma. “She wants to adopt me, Alma. Isn’t that ridiculous! Mayhap she’s foolish now, in her old age, and thinks I’m still a girl.”

“Was she your father’s sister or your mother’s?”

“My father’s. She resembled him. She was taller than he. It always irritated him.

“Alma, can this be true? Why would she give me money? And my cousin, my sweet cousin, Beaumont, exiled abroad. I don’t want to be his substitute. He was so nice to me.”

“Do you want to visit your aunt, Esther?”

Esther turned to her with a frown. “No. She forgot me for years. Why should I present myself with a cup in my hand, begging for money. I don’t need her money! And I certainly don’t need her to adopt me!” She got up and began pacing.

Esther was in a rage. Alma was surprised. She almost never saw her like this.

“Ignoring me! Forgetting me! She could have come and saved me those last dreadful months. But now, when I’ve saved myself, she appears, looking for a child to replace her son!”

“Is she wealthy?” Alma was trying to distract her.

“I don’t know. She must be.” Esther shrugged and then sat down to drink more tea. She said no more and Alma related her adventure with Barty, the butcher’s boy, while out shopping for a joint of mutton.

George had met Charles at the Monkey’s Paw several times and always left before Mac Pherson arrived. He began to understand Charles, or so he thought. A man, a boy really, at loose ends, jealous of his brother, filling his idle days with nonsense.

George decided to offer Charles a piece of work to do.

It was a blustery December night, and Charles was late. He nodded to George and ordered two tankards of ale. He needed to watch his pennies. All the rounds he’d stood had lowered his stash and the next allowance from the Earl wasn’t due for two weeks. He joined George and drank greedily. How good the ale tasted.

George attempted a smile. Charles didn’t notice. He decided to be sociable.

“What do you do, George? A dandy, what?”

George smiled again. “Oh, no, I labor all day in a firm of solicitors. But I always like to have a few extra irons in the fire, don’t you see. What about you? Just a man about town?”

“Yes and chuffed I am. Nearly out of the ready.” Charles stared at his tankard with a frown on his face.

“Oh, that’s a bad place to be in. I’ve been there. A person needs to cultivate opportunities, try to find a way to earn some extra shillings.”

“Well enough for you to say so. You have the people to help you. I have no one,” and here Charles frowned ferociously.

“Oh, that’s not good.” George tried to smile again. “Here now, you’ve got a friend at this table,” and he banged his empty tankard on the table.

He felt uncomfortable making that approach to Miggs, but Charles smiled and stretched out his hand. “Thank you, sir! If any time I can help you, let me know.”

“If I know of a good thing, then, I should tell you?”

“Yes! I’d do almost anything. Hate being short of the ready.”

George rose. He’d seen Mac entering the door and two more tankards heading for the table. “I’ll be in touch. Portman Square, is it?”

“Yes, Rathbone House.” He saluted George who was already out the door.

Charles had hoped George would pay for a round but he was gone. Charles shrugged and joined his friends.

The afternoon after Ailesworth’s evening call, there was an abrupt, loud knock on the door. Alma was closest, so she answered. On the step stood a brawny giant who gave Alma a broad grin.

“Are ye the mistress of this house, then?”

“No. Did you want her?”

“Ay. Ah needs to know where to unload the coals,” he said with a big gap-toothed smile, as he admired Alma.

“The coal! We didn’t order any coal!” She turned to the stair. “Esther! Can you come down?”

She hurried back to the door and found the giant staring down into the drive that went by the side of the narrow house. “Ay. I can makes that,” and he climbed back down the steps to his cart and horse. He climbed aboard and began maneuvering the horse and cart down the narrow drive.

“Wait! What are you doing?” Esther called out from the door.

He bowed his head to her and replied, “Deliverin’ coals, ma’am. Don’ fash yersel’. I see the door to the coal chute.”

“But I didn’t order any coals!”

“No, but his lordship did,” and here he gave a great laugh. It must have woken up everyone for a mile around.

Esther was beside herself. She hurried down the steps to the side of the house where the door to the coal chute was. Before she could speak, he held up his beefy hand.

“Now, missus, my lord said as how you’d object. ‘Jem,’ he said, ‘ if you have to, put them coals on the front steps, but deliver them you must.’” Jim grinned. “Got me orders, I do.

“Now, does that there door open or not?” And he pushed at it. It opened. “Aiyee! Better ‘n better! Now, excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got t’ shovel.”

Esther stood aside, bewildered, as the giant began shoveling coal through the door, in a smooth, rhythmical movement. She could hear the coal slide down the chute. What a lovely sound it was. She stood there a bit, listening.

Then she went back to the house and to Alma’s and Jessie’s questioning expression, she said, “Ailesworth.” Jessie grinned and returned to the kitchen. Alma fought not to smile.

“Oh, go ahead. Grin like Jessie. I must find a few coins to tip him.” She went upstairs.

Below stairs, Jessie and Mrs. Batson went into the back of the cellar, where the coal was falling into the coal bin. They beamed at the dull dark stuff as though it were gold.

“Warm fires, Mrs. B,” said Jessie

“Hot oven for proper bakin’ and roastin’.”

When the giant was through, Esther went down to thank him and give him his pourboire.

“Oh, no, ma’am. M’lord said, ‘Here’s your tip, Jem. Don’t take no money from the missus.”

“Oh but I must!”

“Ma’am, if you was to give it to me, I’d leave it on your front steps before I left.” He grinned at her and climbed up on his cart. He gently backed his horse and cart out of the drive and into the street. He bowed his head to her and went whistling on his way.

After the coal man left, Esther sat in the parlor. Alma peeked in at her. She didn’t dare say anything: Esther had her statue look again.

She wandered below stairs where Mrs. Batson and Jessie were happily talking. Mrs. Batson had filled the coal bucket that sat near her stove. Jessie had a loaded coal shuttle in her grasp.

‘Warm fires tonight, Mrs. N!’

“Yes, I see.” She smiled at them both. Jessie began climbing the stairs and Alma followed her, leaving Mrs. Batson humming in the kitchen.

Jessie took the coal to the parlor. “Excuse me, Mrs. B. Need to build up this fire.” She put the bucket down and used a scoop to place more coals on the meager fire. Then she filled the empty container that held coals ready for the fire and left.

Alma had followed Jessie in. “Esther, I—”

“Payment, Alma. That’s what it is. Simple payment, that’s all.”

“Esther, I don’t understand. Payment for what?”

“For his visit the other night, when you were at the theater.”

“But you said he didn’t—”

“No! But he expects to!” Esther got up and began pacing. “Gift after gift. And now this. How could I refuse those coals? Wouldn’t I be the fool, having coals all over my front step! And Jessie would be sneaking around the house shoveling up pailfuls, and the neighborhood children stealing them for their mothers.”

Alma visualized the scene and wanted to laugh. She could see Jessie chasing the urchins, swinging her coal shovel.

But Esther wasn’t laughing. “I shall write him a note and deliver it myself to Manchester Shipping. This must end, Alma. It has been an interesting, um, an interesting interlude, but I must put an end to it.

“I shall write a note. Alma, will you accompany me to the docks? I admit, I’m a little unsure how to find him.”

“Of course. If you think it’s necessary?”

“I do.”

Esther went to her bedroom where her small portable writing desk was. She sat in the only chair the room held–the room was rather small–and settled to write.

My Lord—‘

She raised her head. She could hear Jessie pouring coals into the bucket in Alma’s room. Too much. It was too much. And after she had told him he took too much on himself, was too interfering in her household matters. Her house and servants weren’t much, didn’t compare to an Earl’s household, but they were hers. Ailesworth, as the heir to an Earl, probably had a houseful of useless servants. And a cellar full of coal.

‘My Lord—

‘I allowed your man to unload his coals into

my cellar as I was incapable of stopping him.

I’m sure you were aware of this. Wouldn’t I be the fool to try and stop him!

‘I must beg your lordship’s attention: There will

be no more gifts.

“There will be no more visits.

‘I must request, nay, order you to cease your visits.

I will not be treated as a kept woman!

Esther stopped writing. Was this enough? She could feel the blood in her cheeks. How dare he!

She signed her letter, folded and sealed it. She gathered her cloak and bonnet and made her way downstairs. Alma was ready for her. They left and found a hackney a few blocks from the house.

It was cold. There was a small wind blowing at them. Esther’s cloak was old and didn’t provide much protection. Alma’s cloak was heavy and warm. Greene had give it to her. She remembered the pleasure she’d felt wearing it when it was new. It had a deep hood which she had appreciated when she wanted to conceal her identity as Josiah Greene’s mistress.

The cab was smelly and cold. They sat close together. The coachman had known where Manchester Shipping was. That was one problem solved. The trip seemed endless to Esther. They arrived at Manchester Shipping and the area in front of the building seemed to be swarming with brawny men. Esther lowered a window and called out to the nearest man, using what Alma called The Duke’s Voice.

“My good man! Would you deliver this to Manchester Shipping. To Lord Ailesworth.”

The man came over. Once he saw her, he tugged his forelock and said, “Dunno he’s there, ma’am.”

“That’s all right. Give it to his, to his office manager, then.”

“That’ll be Hassam. Ay, I will.”

She gave him the note and a coin. He grinned up at her and took his leisurely way towards the door of Manchester Shipping.

“Esther,” Alma whispered, “do you see the size of him. He’s all muscle.”

“Hm?” Esther didn’t see. She was waiting.

They didn’t have long to wait. Ailesworth barreled out the door and strode towards her. The men parted in front of him. He never looked, just kept going.

He smiled as he reached the cab. “Esther! What do you here?”

“My lord. I wanted to deliver my note most expeditiously. I wanted you to know I was not pleased, not pleased at all!

“How dare you interfere in the running of my household! I’ve even spoken to you of it before.”

“Esther, I—”

“I told you not to do it and now you presume, presume to buy me coal. I will not have it. Goodbye. Don’t call again!” She rapped on the roof and the driver chucked at his horse and the cab moved away.

Ailesworth was left standing alone in front of his place of business, surrounded by the dockers who worked for him. They had begun to whisper and grin.

He turned, a ferocious look on his face, his lips pulled back in a snarl. He would gladly have punched any one of them.

The smiles disappeared and all appeared to be busy. He stared around him and saw no sneaky grins.

He strode to the building, knowing they were waiting for him to disappear before resuming their grins and their ribald jokes at his expense.

He climbed the stairs, two steps at a time and entered his office, a room in the corner, partitioned off from the large open space which was half filled with goods. Hassam looked up.

Ought-oh. Bad news. He’d never seen Ailesworth look so fierce. None of his business. Set-backs over the years had never produced anything more than a shrug..

Hassam sat quietly, hoping to avoid becoming the target of Ailesworth’s rage, when Lord Grainger came in.

“What ho! Do you need….” He stopped and looked at Ailesworth and then at Hassam. Hassam shrugged his shoulders in a tiny movement, as though afraid to be caught.

Drum watched Ailesworth, who hadn’t noticed his arrival. Ailesworth was clearly enraged about something. Drum remained silent, leaning against the doorframe. Ailesworth was pacing up and; down the chamber, frowning so ferociously that Drum expected him to lay a trail of smoldering floor boards behind him.

All three men were silent. Finally Ailesworth stopped and looked at Hassam and then Drum. “Do you know what that impossible woman has done? She’s told me never to return again! All because of a few coals!”

“A few coals?” Drum asked tentatively.

“Yes! I had a load of coal delivered to her house. I fixed it that she couldn’t refuse them. I told the coal heaver to dump them on the steps if she refused.

“Now she says I made a fool of her! She says I interfere too much.

“By God! I’ll interfere no more! No woman is worth all this aggravation. And all those dockers in front saw it all. I’ll be the laughing-stock of the docks!”

“No, Ailesworth. You could never be that. You know they admire you. No, fear you, more like.”

“Christ! What do I care.” He tried sitting, but jumped up immediately.

“I need to walk,” and he was gone, down the stairs and out the building. He stopped at the first group of workers he came to. They shuffled a bit away from him.

“My friend and I have had a slight difference of opinion. It’s nobody’s business, is it?”

They shook their heads. Cor, what a beast he was when he was fired up!

“And it’s particularly nobody’s business off the docks.” He gave them one last glare and strode away.

At Lady Pickering’s ball that evening, Maria and her mother arrived with the first wave of guests. Maria had tried to convince her mother that they should arrive fashionably late, but Mrs. Castle would not hear of it. She knew what good manners required, thank you very much.

Lady Pickering was not of the haute ton but she usually had younger sons as guests, out looking for a rich cit to marry. Tonight Maria had several of them around her. After all, she not only was a considerable heiress, but she was handsome, too. She had no flaws–perhaps her nose was too round–and she had a generous figure. Her manner was a little cool and she didn’t simper and blush. Several third and fourth sons that night decided she would do as a wife.

She was enjoying herself and her dance card was filling, but she couldn’t forget that these men saw her as a bank, a bank with a large pound sign on it. So she smiled and talked and when she caught one of the men with his eyes on her neckline, she knew that at least he found one part of her that was attractive without any money attached to it.

Harry Harmon was the third son of an duke, a father who gave his son a small allowance, in the hopes of encouraging an early marriage. Harry had finally admitted to himself that he needed to marry a chit with money. And he’d better do it soon or take to house breaking. Maria Castle looked to be perfect. He was pleased. He didn’t need to search the Pickering’s ballroom or hang out at any other balls. Maria would do. He’d call on her father tomorrow.

As they entered the set for their first dance together, Harry had a chance to look at Maria in a leisurely way. His smile was easy as he looked her over.

“Well, sir! I hope you’ll know me the next time you see me!”

He grinned. “You’re worth a look or ten. Don’t other men look you over?”

“No! At least I don’t catch them at it.” She couldn’t resist smiling at him. “And how do I look, sir?”

“Beautiful.” And he meant it. Her smile transformed her face. He must make her smile more often.

The steps of the dance took them apart but Harry never took his eyes from her face. She blushed at his steady regard. At the end of the dance, they were silent as they rejoined Mrs. Castle. A bevy of young men waiting for Maria were talking. One had his back to the couple. Maria heard him saying, “He’s a devil. Courting two women at the same time. Wish I had his nerve.”

As Maria sat beside her mother again, she was aware of a stir. She glanced up and saw that the man who had made the comment was looking abashed and the other men were concealing smiles.

De Sable! That’s who they were talking about! No wonder he didn’t have time to pay court to her, he was busy courting another woman.

She wondered if she could find out who the woman was?

She became more animated and flirted with all the young men around her. It seemed to her that Harmon was older than most of them. He didn’t try to flirt with her or praise her in extravagant terms. He occasionally talked to the other men, but he kept his eyes on Maria. Aware of his steady regard, she felt herself flush. Irritated, she looked at him and frowned. He winked.

She wrenched her eyes away from him and was grateful for the arrival of her partner for the next dance.

Harry watched her walk across the ballroom. She was so graceful and carried herself like a queen. He turned and made himself agreeable to Mrs. Castle, who was pleased by the attention. The young men who clustered around Maria never paid Mrs. Castle much interest. She knew she wasn’t an interesting person, but she thought they were sometimes a little rude.

Lord Harmon, on the other hand, was all that was polite. He engaged her in conversation for some ten minutes. How pleasant and easy he was to talk with!

Of course, Lord de Sable was all that was courteous, too, but he never engaged her in conversation.

No, that wasn’t true. He did but all he talked about was himself and ton gossip–none of which Mrs. Castle knew anything about. Lord Harmon was interested in her and her family. A true gentleman.

Maria was dancing with Mr. Knowlton, a slightly stout young man. He seemed to be eager to talk of his horses, but Maria smiled and led him to gossip. Then she slipped Lord de Sable’s name in and she saw him color up. Ah, ha! It was de Sable they were talking about.

“Such a charming gentleman,” she said. “Always so thoughtful and gracious.” She kept her eyes on Mr. Knowlton.

He blushed more. “Ah, yes. And very knowledgeable about horses,” and Mr. Knowlton went off on his favorite topic again.

The smile left her face and she began scowling. Mr. Knowlton caught a glance at it and stumbled. “Oh, Miss Castle, I do beg your pardon. So clumsy of me.”

She smiled again and all was well.

When she was back at her mother’s side again, she smiled up at Lord Harmon. My, he was tall! “I’ve saved the supper dance, my lord.”

The gentlemen around her groaned.

Lord Harmon’s eyes were alight. “If you’d do me the honor, Miss Castle….”

“Thank you. I’d be pleased.” She turned. “Mama?”

“My dear! You don’t do that! Apologize to Lord Harmon.”

He bowed to Mrs. Castle and took her hand. “Ma’am, I was about to ask her for that dance. She simply read my mind.”

“Yes, but….”

He squeezed her hand. She relented and smiled. “Thank you, my lord.” In a low voice, she said, “She’s more forward than she should be.”

“She’s charming. Her directness is delightful.” He smiled down at her.

“Goodness!” He released her hand. He was more charming than de Sable.

He turned and watched Miss Castle dance a quadrille with delicate steps, ignoring her partner who was talking non-stop. It was Graves. Yes, he’d talk to the empty sky.

Harmon smiled and waited.

De Sable’s appearance the next day, a clear sunny one, was elegant. He’d been a little alarmed to discover some fraying on the collars of two of his shirts. He’d cast them aside with a frown and a complaint. His valet, Smedley, said nothing. He picked up the shirts. Those collars could perhaps be turned but he’d achieved his aim: to remind his lord of his empty pockets. Smedley hadn’t been paid in two months and was contemplating a change in employment. But Lord de Sable was such a fine figure to dress. A shame there was no money. Smedley had heard rumors of a wealthy widow but he heard nothing to make him feel very secure.

De Sable was on his way to call on Esther. He’d finally pried the source of Esther’s fortune out of George. George was like a clam: he was always reluctant to share any news with anybody. As De Sable walked towards a cab stand, he wondered how to tell Mrs. Beryll. Then he thought of his shirts. What was he going to do for blunt to buy more shirts? And everything. He needed everything. He suppressed that thought quickly. He didn’t want to appear desperate.

Esther was home. Jessie showed him into the parlor. He wondered why she frowned at him.

Esther was busy upstairs when Jessie brought de Sable’s card up. “Oh, bother. Will that man ever leave me alone. And Alma gone out.

“Jessie, ask Mrs. Nelson, when she returns, to join me in the parlor. And bring tea.”

Jessie nodded and tramped down the stairs. Esther took her time fixing her hair and straightening her gown.

As she walked into the parlor, de Sable was standing by the mantle, all careless grace.

“Mrs. Beryl, your servant,” and he bowed deeply.

He did have an elegant bow.

“Lord de Sable. Please, be seated,” as she sank onto the settee.

“Madam, I prefer to stand. Or should I call you ‘my lady’?”

Esther’s back grew rigid. “I am Mrs. Beryll, my lord.”

De Sable had planned the next part. He threw himself on his knees in front of her and grasped her hand.

“Oh, Esther! I am so happy to be the one to tell you of your fortune.” He wouldn’t let her hand go. “As the man who loves you deeply, I am proud to be able to tell you of your good fortune. And to plan our future together.”

That sounded too stiff. He continued. “I have loved you from the moment I met you. I can not live without you.”

There. That should do it.

“Lord de Sable, release my hand.”

It was the Duke’s daughter who spoke and de Sable loosened his grip.

Esther pointed to the chair opposite. “Sit. There. Compose yourself and tell me what jackanapes, humgudgeon fortune you’re talking about.”

De Sable had recovered himself as he sat, pulling his waistcoat down, checking his pantaloons to be sure they were still spotless. His speech was sufficiently moving, he felt, but his nether regions were clearly not interested. That would change, of course, when he had Esther in his bed.

“Mrs. Beryll! It is no fol-da-rol. The Countess D’Aellen is looking for you. Her son has gone abroad in flight from the Magistrate and she…. Esther, are you all right?” He went on one knee and gently took her hand. She was white and appeared to have turned to stone.

He leaped to his feet and opened the door, shouting, “Maid! Where are….”

He nearly collided with Jessie bring in the tea tray.

“Hurry. Your mistress needs you.”

Jessie clattered the tray down on the table and took her mistress’ hands and chafed them, crying, “Oh, Mrs. B., oh, Mrs. B., do come round!”

Esther collected herself to find Jessie rubbing the skin off her hands and de Sable bending over her.

It was this scene that Alma encountered as walked into the parlor. “What is it?”

“Thank you, Jessie. I’m fine now. Lord de Sable, please, take your seat. I’m sure the tea will revive me,” and she leaned over to raise the teapot.

Alma stopped her hand. “No, dear, I’ll do it,” and poured out three cups of tea. “Thank you, Jessie. You may go.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” and she departed with a horrendous frown at de Sable, which startled him.

“Now just drink this, Esther. We can wait to talk of it,” and she turned to Lord de Sable to talk of the weather.

He recovered himself nicely, although he kept his eyes on Esther, who drank her tea with care.

When she finished, she put her cup down and staid, “Now, my lord, where did you hear this rumor?”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Beryll, but it is no rumor. I heard it from, well, someone heard it from an employee of Carruthers and Smythe. Ma’am, they are looking for you. The Countess D’Aellen is searching for you. In fact, she is at her town house now. Beaumont killed a man in a duel, a dreadful fellow, always fleecing young men fresh from University, deserved to die, caused one suicide.” He cleared his throat.

“At any rate, Beaumont’s gone, gone to Naples I think. Or was it Baden?” He knew he was rambling but Esther’s basilisk stare was unnerving.

“My aunt, my lord.”

“Yes! The Countess realizes she has misplaced you over the years and wants to make amends. I think she wants to adopt you.”

“Adopt me!”

De Sable was rambling. He had to get a grip on himself.

“Mrs. Beryll, if you present yourself to the Countess, I am sure you will learn all.”

Esther seemed to be locked in a dream. She was still, her eyes seeing inward. Alma and de Sable remained silent and watchful. Alma would have been content to wait for Esther to recover herself, but de Sable was too anxious.

“Madame! If you could consider my offer, I am sure it will bring much joy to us both.”

He stood. Esther came to herself and rose. “I thank you for this news and bid you good day, my lord.”

Alma moved to show him to the door. He dare not stay. Esther had become Lady Elizabeth and it unnerved him. He bowed and departed.

Alma returned. She sat and picked up her friend’s hand. “Esther. Are you all right?”

Esther stirred herself. “Yes, Alma. It’s just that his mention of my aunt brought it all back. You know,” turning to Alma, “I’d forgotten her! Isn’t that strange? My last year at Dramlee Park was so dreadful, that I’d forgotten almost anything connected to it.

“She was imperious. She should have been the Duke. Back ramrod straight, her black hair always beautifully dressed, and diamonds. She always wore a diamond ring as big as my hand, or so I thought when I was little and was presented to her to make my curtsey.

“Then–back to the nursery. How strange, to remember her.” Esther turned to Alma. “She wants to adopt me, Alma. Isn’t that ridiculous! Mayhap she’s foolish now, in her old age, and thinks I’m still a girl.”

“Was she your father’s sister or your mother’s?”

“My father’s. She resembled him. She was taller than he. It always irritated him.

“Alma, can this be true? Why would she give me money? And my cousin, my sweet cousin, Beaumont, exiled abroad. I don’t want to be his substitute. He was so nice to me.”

“Do you want to visit your aunt, Esther?”

Esther turned to her with a frown. “No. She forgot me for years. Why should I present myself with a cup in my hand, begging for money. I don’t need her money! And I certainly don’t need her to adopt me!” She got up and began pacing.

Esther was in a rage. Alma was surprised. She almost never saw her like this.

“Ignoring me! Forgetting me! She could have come and saved me those last dreadful months. But now, when I’ve saved myself, she appears, looking for a child to replace her son!”

“Is she wealthy?” Alma was trying to distract her.

“I don’t know. She must be.” Esther shrugged and then sat down to drink more tea. She said no more and Alma related her adventure with Barty, the butcher’s boy, while out shopping for a joint of mutton.

George had met Charles at the Monkey’s Paw several times and always left before Mac Pherson arrived. He began to understand Charles, or so he thought. A man, a boy really, at loose ends, jealous of his brother, filling his idle days with nonsense.

George decided to offer Charles a piece of work to do.

It was a blustery December night, and Charles was late. He nodded to George and ordered two tankards of ale. He needed to watch his pennies. All the rounds he’d stood had lowered his stash and the next allowance from the Earl wasn’t due for two weeks. He joined George and drank greedily. How good the ale tasted.

George attempted a smile. Charles didn’t notice. He decided to be sociable.

“What do you do, George? A dandy, what?”

George smiled again. “Oh, no, I labor all day in a firm of solicitors. But I always like to have a few extra irons in the fire, don’t you see. What about you? Just a man about town?”

“Yes and chuffed I am. Nearly out of the ready.” Charles stared at his tankard with a frown on his face.

“Oh, that’s a bad place to be in. I’ve been there. A person needs to cultivate opportunities, try to find a way to earn some extra shillings.”

“Well enough for you to say so. You have the people to help you. I have no one,” and here Charles frowned ferociously.

“Oh, that’s not good.” George tried to smile again. “Here now, you’ve got a friend at this table,” and he banged his empty tankard on the table.

He felt uncomfortable making that approach to Miggs, but Charles smiled and stretched out his hand. “Thank you, sir! If any time I can help you, let me know.”

“If I know of a good thing, then, I should tell you?”

“Yes! I’d do almost anything. Hate being short of the ready.”

George rose. He’d seen Mac entering the door and two more tankards heading for the table. “I’ll be in touch. Portman Square, is it?”

“Yes, Rathbone House.” He saluted George who was already out the door.

Charles had hoped George would pay for a round but he was gone. Charles shrugged and joined his friends.

The afternoon after Ailesworth’s evening call, there was an abrupt, loud knock on the door. Alma was closest, so she answered. On the step stood a brawny giant who gave Alma a broad grin.

“Are ye the mistress of this house, then?”

“No. Did you want her?”

“Ay. Ah needs to know where to unload the coals,” he said with a big gap-toothed smile, as he admired Alma.

“The coal! We didn’t order any coal!” She turned to the stair. “Esther! Can you come down?”

She hurried back to the door and found the giant staring down into the drive that went by the side of the narrow house. “Ay. I can makes that,” and he climbed back down the steps to his cart and horse. He climbed aboard and began maneuvering the horse and cart down the narrow drive.

“Wait! What are you doing?” Esther called out from the door.

He bowed his head to her and replied, “Deliverin’ coals, ma’am. Don’ fash yersel’. I see the door to the coal chute.”

“But I didn’t order any coals!”

“No, but his lordship did,” and here he gave a great laugh. It must have woken up everyone for a mile around.

Esther was beside herself. She hurried down the steps to the side of the house where the door to the coal chute was. Before she could speak, he held up his beefy hand.

“Now, missus, my lord said as how you’d object. ‘Jem,’ he said, ‘ if you have to, put them coals on the front steps, but deliver them you must.’” Jim grinned. “Got me orders, I do.

“Now, does that there door open or not?” And he pushed at it. It opened. “Aiyee! Better ‘n better! Now, excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got t’ shovel.”

Esther stood aside, bewildered, as the giant began shoveling coal through the door, in a smooth, rhythmical movement. She could hear the coal slide down the chute. What a lovely sound it was. She stood there a bit, listening.

Then she went back to the house and to Alma’s and Jessie’s questioning expression, she said, “Ailesworth.” Jessie grinned and returned to the kitchen. Alma fought not to smile.

“Oh, go ahead. Grin like Jessie. I must find a few coins to tip him.” She went upstairs.

Below stairs, Jessie and Mrs. Batson went into the back of the cellar, where the coal was falling into the coal bin. They beamed at the dull dark stuff as though it were gold.

“Warm fires, Mrs. B,” said Jessie

“Hot oven for proper bakin’ and roastin’.”

When the giant was through, Esther went down to thank him and give him his pourboire.

“Oh, no, ma’am. M’lord said, ‘Here’s your tip, Jem. Don’t take no money from the missus.”

“Oh but I must!”

“Ma’am, if you was to give it to me, I’d leave it on your front steps before I left.” He grinned at her and climbed up on his cart. He gently backed his horse and cart out of the drive and into the street. He bowed his head to her and went whistling on his way.

After the coal man left, Esther sat in the parlor. Alma peeked in at her. She didn’t dare say anything: Esther had her statue look again.

She wandered below stairs where Mrs. Batson and Jessie were happily talking. Mrs. Batson had filled the coal bucket that sat near her stove. Jessie had a loaded coal shuttle in her grasp.

‘Warm fires tonight, Mrs. N!’

“Yes, I see.” She smiled at them both. Jessie began climbing the stairs and Alma followed her, leaving Mrs. Batson humming in the kitchen.

Jessie took the coal to the parlor. “Excuse me, Mrs. B. Need to build up this fire.” She put the bucket down and used a scoop to place more coals on the meager fire. Then she filled the empty container that held coals ready for the fire and left.

Alma had followed Jessie in. “Esther, I—”

“Payment, Alma. That’s what it is. Simple payment, that’s all.”

“Esther, I don’t understand. Payment for what?”

“For his visit the other night, when you were at the theater.”

“But you said he didn’t—”

“No! But he expects to!” Esther got up and began pacing. “Gift after gift. And now this. How could I refuse those coals? Wouldn’t I be the fool, having coals all over my front step! And Jessie would be sneaking around the house shoveling up pailfuls, and the neighborhood children stealing them for their mothers.”

Alma visualized the scene and wanted to laugh. She could see Jessie chasing the urchins, swinging her coal shovel.

But Esther wasn’t laughing. “I shall write him a note and deliver it myself to Manchester Shipping. This must end, Alma. It has been an interesting, um, an interesting interlude, but I must put an end to it.

“I shall write a note. Alma, will you accompany me to the docks? I admit, I’m a little unsure how to find him.”

“Of course. If you think it’s necessary?”

“I do.”

Esther went to her bedroom where her small portable writing desk was. She sat in the only chair the room held–the room was rather small–and settled to write.

My Lord—‘

She raised her head. She could hear Jessie pouring coals into the bucket in Alma’s room. Too much. It was too much. And after she had told him he took too much on himself, was too interfering in her household matters. Her house and servants weren’t much, didn’t compare to an Earl’s household, but they were hers. Ailesworth, as the heir to an Earl, probably had a houseful of useless servants. And a cellar full of coal.

‘My Lord—

‘I allowed your man to unload his coals into

my cellar as I was incapable of stopping him.

I’m sure you were aware of this. Wouldn’t I be the fool to try and stop him!

‘I must beg your lordship’s attention: There will

be no more gifts.

“There will be no more visits.

‘I must request, nay, order you to cease your visits.

I will not be treated as a kept woman!

Esther stopped writing. Was this enough? She could feel the blood in her cheeks. How dare he!

She signed her letter, folded and sealed it. She gathered her cloak and bonnet and made her way downstairs. Alma was ready for her. They left and found a hackney a few blocks from the house.

It was cold. There was a small wind blowing at them. Esther’s cloak was old and didn’t provide much protection. Alma’s cloak was heavy and warm. Greene had give it to her. She remembered the pleasure she’d felt wearing it when it was new. It had a deep hood which she had appreciated when she wanted to conceal her identity as Josiah Greene’s mistress.

The cab was smelly and cold. They sat close together. The coachman had known where Manchester Shipping was. That was one problem solved. The trip seemed endless to Esther. They arrived at Manchester Shipping and the area in front of the building seemed to be swarming with brawny men. Esther lowered a window and called out to the nearest man, using what Alma called The Duke’s Voice.

“My good man! Would you deliver this to Manchester Shipping. To Lord Ailesworth.”

The man came over. Once he saw her, he tugged his forelock and said, “Dunno he’s there, ma’am.”

“That’s all right. Give it to his, to his office manager, then.”

“That’ll be Hassam. Ay, I will.”

She gave him the note and a coin. He grinned up at her and took his leisurely way towards the door of Manchester Shipping.

“Esther,” Alma whispered, “do you see the size of him. He’s all muscle.”

“Hm?” Esther didn’t see. She was waiting.

They didn’t have long to wait. Ailesworth barreled out the door and strode towards her. The men parted in front of him. He never looked, just kept going.

He smiled as he reached the cab. “Esther! What do you here?”

“My lord. I wanted to deliver my note most expeditiously. I wanted you to know I was not pleased, not pleased at all!

“How dare you interfere in the running of my household! I’ve even spoken to you of it before.”

“Esther, I—”

“I told you not to do it and now you presume, presume to buy me coal. I will not have it. Goodbye. Don’t call again!” She rapped on the roof and the driver chucked at his horse and the cab moved away.

Ailesworth was left standing alone in front of his place of business, surrounded by the dockers who worked for him. They had begun to whisper and grin.

He turned, a ferocious look on his face, his lips pulled back in a snarl. He would gladly have punched any one of them.

The smiles disappeared and all appeared to be busy. He stared around him and saw no sneaky grins.

He strode to the building, knowing they were waiting for him to disappear before resuming their grins and their ribald jokes at his expense.

He climbed the stairs, two steps at a time and entered his office, a room in the corner, partitioned off from the large open space which was half filled with goods. Hassam looked up.

Ought-oh. Bad news. He’d never seen Ailesworth look so fierce. None of his business. Set-backs over the years had never produced anything more than a shrug..

Hassam sat quietly, hoping to avoid becoming the target of Ailesworth’s rage, when Lord Grainger came in.

“What ho! Do you need….” He stopped and looked at Ailesworth and then at Hassam. Hassam shrugged his shoulders in a tiny movement, as though afraid to be caught.

Drum watched Ailesworth, who hadn’t noticed his arrival. Ailesworth was clearly enraged about something. Drum remained silent, leaning against the doorframe. Ailesworth was pacing up and; down the chamber, frowning so ferociously that Drum expected him to lay a trail of smoldering floor boards behind him.

All three men were silent. Finally Ailesworth stopped and looked at Hassam and then Drum. “Do you know what that impossible woman has done? She’s told me never to return again! All because of a few coals!”

“A few coals?” Drum asked tentatively.

“Yes! I had a load of coal delivered to her house. I fixed it that she couldn’t refuse them. I told the coal heaver to dump them on the steps if she refused.

“Now she says I made a fool of her! She says I interfere too much.

“By God! I’ll interfere no more! No woman is worth all this aggravation. And all those dockers in front saw it all. I’ll be the laughing-stock of the docks!”

“No, Ailesworth. You could never be that. You know they admire you. No, fear you, more like.”

“Christ! What do I care.” He tried sitting, but jumped up immediately.

“I need to walk,” and he was gone, down the stairs and out the building. He stopped at the first group of workers he came to. They shuffled a bit away from him.

“My friend and I have had a slight difference of opinion. It’s nobody’s business, is it?”

They shook their heads. Cor, what a beast he was when he was fired up!

“And it’s particularly nobody’s business off the docks.” He gave them one last glare and strode away.

At Lady Pickering’s ball that evening, Maria and her mother arrived with the first wave of guests. Maria had tried to convince her mother that they should arrive fashionably late, but Mrs. Castle would not hear of it. She knew what good manners required, thank you very much.

Lady Pickering was not of the haute ton but she usually had younger sons as guests, out looking for a rich cit to marry. Tonight Maria had several of them around her. After all, she not only was a considerable heiress, but she was handsome, too. She had no flaws–perhaps her nose was too round–and she had a generous figure. Her manner was a little cool and she didn’t simper and blush. Several third and fourth sons that night decided she would do as a wife.

She was enjoying herself and her dance card was filling, but she couldn’t forget that these men saw her as a bank, a bank with a large pound sign on it. So she smiled and talked and when she caught one of the men with his eyes on her neckline, she knew that at least he found one part of her that was attractive without any money attached to it.

Harry Harmon was the third son of an duke, a father who gave his son a small allowance, in the hopes of encouraging an early marriage. Harry had finally admitted to himself that he needed to marry a chit with money. And he’d better do it soon or take to house breaking. Maria Castle looked to be perfect. He was pleased. He didn’t need to search the Pickering’s ballroom or hang out at any other balls. Maria would do. He’d call on her father tomorrow.

As they entered the set for their first dance together, Harry had a chance to look at Maria in a leisurely way. His smile was easy as he looked her over.

“Well, sir! I hope you’ll know me the next time you see me!”

He grinned. “You’re worth a look or ten. Don’t other men look you over?”

“No! At least I don’t catch them at it.” She couldn’t resist smiling at him. “And how do I look, sir?”

“Beautiful.” And he meant it. Her smile transformed her face. He must make her smile more often.

The steps of the dance took them apart but Harry never took his eyes from her face. She blushed at his steady regard. At the end of the dance, they were silent as they rejoined Mrs. Castle. A bevy of young men waiting for Maria were talking. One had his back to the couple. Maria heard him saying, “He’s a devil. Courting two women at the same time. Wish I had his nerve.”

As Maria sat beside her mother again, she was aware of a stir. She glanced up and saw that the man who had made the comment was looking abashed and the other men were concealing smiles.

De Sable! That’s who they were talking about! No wonder he didn’t have time to pay court to her, he was busy courting another woman.

She wondered if she could find out who the woman was?

She became more animated and flirted with all the young men around her. It seemed to her that Harmon was older than most of them. He didn’t try to flirt with her or praise her in extravagant terms. He occasionally talked to the other men, but he kept his eyes on Maria. Aware of his steady regard, she felt herself flush. Irritated, she looked at him and frowned. He winked.

She wrenched her eyes away from him and was grateful for the arrival of her partner for the next dance.

Harry watched her walk across the ballroom. She was so graceful and carried herself like a queen. He turned and made himself agreeable to Mrs. Castle, who was pleased by the attention. The young men who clustered around Maria never paid Mrs. Castle much interest. She knew she wasn’t an interesting person, but she thought they were sometimes a little rude.

Lord Harmon, on the other hand, was all that was polite. He engaged her in conversation for some ten minutes. How pleasant and easy he was to talk with!

Of course, Lord de Sable was all that was courteous, too, but he never engaged her in conversation.

No, that wasn’t true. He did but all he talked about was himself and ton gossip–none of which Mrs. Castle knew anything about. Lord Harmon was interested in her and her family. A true gentleman.

Maria was dancing with Mr. Knowlton, a slightly stout young man. He seemed to be eager to talk of his horses, but Maria smiled and led him to gossip. Then she slipped Lord de Sable’s name in and she saw him color up. Ah, ha! It was de Sable they were talking about.

“Such a charming gentleman,” she said. “Always so thoughtful and gracious.” She kept her eyes on Mr. Knowlton.

He blushed more. “Ah, yes. And very knowledgeable about horses,” and Mr. Knowlton went off on his favorite topic again.

The smile left her face and she began scowling. Mr. Knowlton caught a glance at it and stumbled. “Oh, Miss Castle, I do beg your pardon. So clumsy of me.”

She smiled again and all was well.

When she was back at her mother’s side again, she smiled up at Lord Harmon. My, he was tall! “I’ve saved the supper dance, my lord.”

The gentlemen around her groaned.

Lord Harmon’s eyes were alight. “If you’d do me the honor, Miss Castle….”

“Thank you. I’d be pleased.” She turned. “Mama?”

“My dear! You don’t do that! Apologize to Lord Harmon.”

He bowed to Mrs. Castle and took her hand. “Ma’am, I was about to ask her for that dance. She simply read my mind.”

“Yes, but….”

He squeezed her hand. She relented and smiled. “Thank you, my lord.” In a low voice, she said, “She’s more forward than she should be.”

“She’s charming. Her directness is delightful.” He smiled down at her.

“Goodness!” He released her hand. He was more charming than de Sable.

He turned and watched Miss Castle dance a quadrille with delicate steps, ignoring her partner who was talking non-stop. It was Graves. Yes, he’d talk to the empty sky.

Harmon smiled and waited.

De Sable’s appearance the next day, a clear sunny one, was elegant. He’d been a little alarmed to discover some fraying on the collars of two of his shirts. He’d cast them aside with a frown and a complaint. His valet, Smedley, said nothing. He picked up the shirts. Those collars could perhaps be turned but he’d achieved his aim: to remind his lord of his empty pockets. Smedley hadn’t been paid in two months and was contemplating a change in employment. But Lord de Sable was such a fine figure to dress. A shame there was no money. Smedley had heard rumors of a wealthy widow but he heard nothing to make him feel very secure.

De Sable was on his way to call on Esther. He’d finally pried the source of Esther’s fortune out of George. George was like a clam: he was always reluctant to share any news with anybody. As De Sable walked towards a cab stand, he wondered how to tell Mrs. Beryll. Then he thought of his shirts. What was he going to do for blunt to buy more shirts? And everything. He needed everything. He suppressed that thought quickly. He didn’t want to appear desperate.

Esther was home. Jessie showed him into the parlor. He wondered why she frowned at him.

Esther was busy upstairs when Jessie brought de Sable’s card up. “Oh, bother. Will that man ever leave me alone. And Alma gone out.

“Jessie, ask Mrs. Nelson, when she returns, to join me in the parlor. And bring tea.”

Jessie nodded and tramped down the stairs. Esther took her time fixing her hair and straightening her gown.

As she walked into the parlor, de Sable was standing by the mantle, all careless grace.

“Mrs. Beryl, your servant,” and he bowed deeply.

He did have an elegant bow.

“Lord de Sable. Please, be seated,” as she sank onto the settee.

“Madam, I prefer to stand. Or should I call you ‘my lady’?”

Esther’s back grew rigid. “I am Mrs. Beryll, my lord.”

De Sable had planned the next part. He threw himself on his knees in front of her and grasped her hand.

“Oh, Esther! I am so happy to be the one to tell you of your fortune.” He wouldn’t let her hand go. “As the man who loves you deeply, I am proud to be able to tell you of your good fortune. And to plan our future together.”

That sounded too stiff. He continued. “I have loved you from the moment I met you. I can not live without you.”

There. That should do it.

“Lord de Sable, release my hand.”

It was the Duke’s daughter who spoke and de Sable loosened his grip.

Esther pointed to the chair opposite. “Sit. There. Compose yourself and tell me what jackanapes, humgudgeon fortune you’re talking about.”

De Sable had recovered himself as he sat, pulling his waistcoat down, checking his pantaloons to be sure they were still spotless. His speech was sufficiently moving, he felt, but his nether regions were clearly not interested. That would change, of course, when he had Esther in his bed.

“Mrs. Beryll! It is no fol-da-rol. The Countess D’Aellen is looking for you. Her son has gone abroad in flight from the Magistrate and she…. Esther, are you all right?” He went on one knee and gently took her hand. She was white and appeared to have turned to stone.

He leaped to his feet and opened the door, shouting, “Maid! Where are….”

He nearly collided with Jessie bring in the tea tray.

“Hurry. Your mistress needs you.”

Jessie clattered the tray down on the table and took her mistress’ hands and chafed them, crying, “Oh, Mrs. B., oh, Mrs. B., do come round!”

Esther collected herself to find Jessie rubbing the skin off her hands and de Sable bending over her.

It was this scene that Alma encountered as walked into the parlor. “What is it?”

“Thank you, Jessie. I’m fine now. Lord de Sable, please, take your seat. I’m sure the tea will revive me,” and she leaned over to raise the teapot.

Alma stopped her hand. “No, dear, I’ll do it,” and poured out three cups of tea. “Thank you, Jessie. You may go.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” and she departed with a horrendous frown at de Sable, which startled him.

“Now just drink this, Esther. We can wait to talk of it,” and she turned to Lord de Sable to talk of the weather.

He recovered himself nicely, although he kept his eyes on Esther, who drank her tea with care.

When she finished, she put her cup down and staid, “Now, my lord, where did you hear this rumor?”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Beryll, but it is no rumor. I heard it from, well, someone heard it from an employee of Carruthers and Smythe. Ma’am, they are looking for you. The Countess D’Aellen is searching for you. In fact, she is at her town house now. Beaumont killed a man in a duel, a dreadful fellow, always fleecing young men fresh from University, deserved to die, caused one suicide.” He cleared his throat.

“At any rate, Beaumont’s gone, gone to Naples I think. Or was it Baden?” He knew he was rambling but Esther’s basilisk stare was unnerving.

“My aunt, my lord.”

“Yes! The Countess realizes she has misplaced you over the years and wants to make amends. I think she wants to adopt you.”

“Adopt me!”

De Sable was rambling. He had to get a grip on himself.

“Mrs. Beryll, if you present yourself to the Countess, I am sure you will learn all.”

Esther seemed to be locked in a dream. She was still, her eyes seeing inward. Alma and de Sable remained silent and watchful. Alma would have been content to wait for Esther to recover herself, but de Sable was too anxious.

“Madame! If you could consider my offer, I am sure it will bring much joy to us both.”

He stood. Esther came to herself and rose. “I thank you for this news and bid you good day, my lord.”

Alma moved to show him to the door. He dare not stay. Esther had become Lady Elizabeth and it unnerved him. He bowed and departed.

Alma returned. She sat and picked up her friend’s hand. “Esther. Are you all right?”

Esther stirred herself. “Yes, Alma. It’s just that his mention of my aunt brought it all back. You know,” turning to Alma, “I’d forgotten her! Isn’t that strange? My last year at Dramlee Park was so dreadful, that I’d forgotten almost anything connected to it.

“She was imperious. She should have been the Duke. Back ramrod straight, her black hair always beautifully dressed, and diamonds. She always wore a diamond ring as big as my hand, or so I thought when I was little and was presented to her to make my curtsey.

“Then–back to the nursery. How strange, to remember her.” Esther turned to Alma. “She wants to adopt me, Alma. Isn’t that ridiculous! Mayhap she’s foolish now, in her old age, and thinks I’m still a girl.”

“Was she your father’s sister or your mother’s?”

“My father’s. She resembled him. She was taller than he. It always irritated him.

“Alma, can this be true? Why would she give me money? And my cousin, my sweet cousin, Beaumont, exiled abroad. I don’t want to be his substitute. He was so nice to me.”

“Do you want to visit your aunt, Esther?”

Esther turned to her with a frown. “No. She forgot me for years. Why should I present myself with a cup in my hand, begging for money. I don’t need her money! And I certainly don’t need her to adopt me!” She got up and began pacing.

Esther was in a rage. Alma was surprised. She almost never saw her like this.

“Ignoring me! Forgetting me! She could have come and saved me those last dreadful months. But now, when I’ve saved myself, she appears, looking for a child to replace her son!”

“Is she wealthy?” Alma was trying to distract her.

“I don’t know. She must be.” Esther shrugged and then sat down to drink more tea. She said no more and Alma related her adventure with Barty, the butcher’s boy, while out shopping for a joint of mutton.

George had met Charles at the Monkey’s Paw several times and always left before Mac Pherson arrived. He began to understand Charles, or so he thought. A man, a boy really, at loose ends, jealous of his brother, filling his idle days with nonsense.

George decided to offer Charles a piece of work to do.

It was a blustery December night, and Charles was late. He nodded to George and ordered two tankards of ale. He needed to watch his pennies. All the rounds he’d stood had lowered his stash and the next allowance from the Earl wasn’t due for two weeks. He joined George and drank greedily. How good the ale tasted.

George attempted a smile. Charles didn’t notice. He decided to be sociable.

“What do you do, George? A dandy, what?”

George smiled again. “Oh, no, I labor all day in a firm of solicitors. But I always like to have a few extra irons in the fire, don’t you see. What about you? Just a man about town?”

“Yes and chuffed I am. Nearly out of the ready.” Charles stared at his tankard with a frown on his face.

“Oh, that’s a bad place to be in. I’ve been there. A person needs to cultivate opportunities, try to find a way to earn some extra shillings.”

“Well enough for you to say so. You have the people to help you. I have no one,” and here Charles frowned ferociously.

“Oh, that’s not good.” George tried to smile again. “Here now, you’ve got a friend at this table,” and he banged his empty tankard on the table.

He felt uncomfortable making that approach to Miggs, but Charles smiled and stretched out his hand. “Thank you, sir! If any time I can help you, let me know.”

“If I know of a good thing, then, I should tell you?”

“Yes! I’d do almost anything. Hate being short of the ready.”

George rose. He’d seen Mac entering the door and two more tankards heading for the table. “I’ll be in touch. Portman Square, is it?”

“Yes, Rathbone House.” He saluted George who was already out the door.

Charles had hoped George would pay for a round but he was gone. Charles shrugged and joined his friends.

The afternoon after Ailesworth’s evening call, there was an abrupt, loud knock on the door. Alma was closest, so she answered. On the step stood a brawny giant who gave Alma a broad grin.

“Are ye the mistress of this house, then?”

“No. Did you want her?”

“Ay. Ah needs to know where to unload the coals,” he said with a big gap-toothed smile, as he admired Alma.

“The coal! We didn’t order any coal!” She turned to the stair. “Esther! Can you come down?”

She hurried back to the door and found the giant staring down into the drive that went by the side of the narrow house. “Ay. I can makes that,” and he climbed back down the steps to his cart and horse. He climbed aboard and began maneuvering the horse and cart down the narrow drive.

“Wait! What are you doing?” Esther called out from the door.

He bowed his head to her and replied, “Deliverin’ coals, ma’am. Don’ fash yersel’. I see the door to the coal chute.”

“But I didn’t order any coals!”

“No, but his lordship did,” and here he gave a great laugh. It must have woken up everyone for a mile around.

Esther was beside herself. She hurried down the steps to the side of the house where the door to the coal chute was. Before she could speak, he held up his beefy hand.

“Now, missus, my lord said as how you’d object. ‘Jem,’ he said, ‘ if you have to, put them coals on the front steps, but deliver them you must.’” Jim grinned. “Got me orders, I do.

“Now, does that there door open or not?” And he pushed at it. It opened. “Aiyee! Better ‘n better! Now, excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got t’ shovel.”

Esther stood aside, bewildered, as the giant began shoveling coal through the door, in a smooth, rhythmical movement. She could hear the coal slide down the chute. What a lovely sound it was. She stood there a bit, listening.

Then she went back to the house and to Alma’s and Jessie’s questioning expression, she said, “Ailesworth.” Jessie grinned and returned to the kitchen. Alma fought not to smile.

“Oh, go ahead. Grin like Jessie. I must find a few coins to tip him.” She went upstairs.

Below stairs, Jessie and Mrs. Batson went into the back of the cellar, where the coal was falling into the coal bin. They beamed at the dull dark stuff as though it were gold.

“Warm fires, Mrs. B,” said Jessie

“Hot oven for proper bakin’ and roastin’.”

When the giant was through, Esther went down to thank him and give him his pourboire.

“Oh, no, ma’am. M’lord said, ‘Here’s your tip, Jem. Don’t take no money from the missus.”

“Oh but I must!”

“Ma’am, if you was to give it to me, I’d leave it on your front steps before I left.” He grinned at her and climbed up on his cart. He gently backed his horse and cart out of the drive and into the street. He bowed his head to her and went whistling on his way.

After the coal man left, Esther sat in the parlor. Alma peeked in at her. She didn’t dare say anything: Esther had her statue look again.

She wandered below stairs where Mrs. Batson and Jessie were happily talking. Mrs. Batson had filled the coal bucket that sat near her stove. Jessie had a loaded coal shuttle in her grasp.

‘Warm fires tonight, Mrs. N!’

“Yes, I see.” She smiled at them both. Jessie began climbing the stairs and Alma followed her, leaving Mrs. Batson humming in the kitchen.

Jessie took the coal to the parlor. “Excuse me, Mrs. B. Need to build up this fire.” She put the bucket down and used a scoop to place more coals on the meager fire. Then she filled the empty container that held coals ready for the fire and left.

Alma had followed Jessie in. “Esther, I—”

“Payment, Alma. That’s what it is. Simple payment, that’s all.”

“Esther, I don’t understand. Payment for what?”

“For his visit the other night, when you were at the theater.”

“But you said he didn’t—”

“No! But he expects to!” Esther got up and began pacing. “Gift after gift. And now this. How could I refuse those coals? Wouldn’t I be the fool, having coals all over my front step! And Jessie would be sneaking around the house shoveling up pailfuls, and the neighborhood children stealing them for their mothers.”

Alma visualized the scene and wanted to laugh. She could see Jessie chasing the urchins, swinging her coal shovel.

But Esther wasn’t laughing. “I shall write him a note and deliver it myself to Manchester Shipping. This must end, Alma. It has been an interesting, um, an interesting interlude, but I must put an end to it.

“I shall write a note. Alma, will you accompany me to the docks? I admit, I’m a little unsure how to find him.”

“Of course. If you think it’s necessary?”

“I do.”

Esther went to her bedroom where her small portable writing desk was. She sat in the only chair the room held–the room was rather small–and settled to write.

My Lord—‘

She raised her head. She could hear Jessie pouring coals into the bucket in Alma’s room. Too much. It was too much. And after she had told him he took too much on himself, was too interfering in her household matters. Her house and servants weren’t much, didn’t compare to an Earl’s household, but they were hers. Ailesworth, as the heir to an Earl, probably had a houseful of useless servants. And a cellar full of coal.

‘My Lord—

‘I allowed your man to unload his coals into

my cellar as I was incapable of stopping him.

I’m sure you were aware of this. Wouldn’t I be the fool to try and stop him!

‘I must beg your lordship’s attention: There will

be no more gifts.

“There will be no more visits.

‘I must request, nay, order you to cease your visits.

I will not be treated as a kept woman!

Esther stopped writing. Was this enough? She could feel the blood in her cheeks. How dare he!

She signed her letter, folded and sealed it. She gathered her cloak and bonnet and made her way downstairs. Alma was ready for her. They left and found a hackney a few blocks from the house.

It was cold. There was a small wind blowing at them. Esther’s cloak was old and didn’t provide much protection. Alma’s cloak was heavy and warm. Greene had give it to her. She remembered the pleasure she’d felt wearing it when it was new. It had a deep hood which she had appreciated when she wanted to conceal her identity as Josiah Greene’s mistress.

The cab was smelly and cold. They sat close together. The coachman had known where Manchester Shipping was. That was one problem solved. The trip seemed endless to Esther. They arrived at Manchester Shipping and the area in front of the building seemed to be swarming with brawny men. Esther lowered a window and called out to the nearest man, using what Alma called The Duke’s Voice.

“My good man! Would you deliver this to Manchester Shipping. To Lord Ailesworth.”

The man came over. Once he saw her, he tugged his forelock and said, “Dunno he’s there, ma’am.”

“That’s all right. Give it to his, to his office manager, then.”

“That’ll be Hassam. Ay, I will.”

She gave him the note and a coin. He grinned up at her and took his leisurely way towards the door of Manchester Shipping.

“Esther,” Alma whispered, “do you see the size of him. He’s all muscle.”

“Hm?” Esther didn’t see. She was waiting.

They didn’t have long to wait. Ailesworth barreled out the door and strode towards her. The men parted in front of him. He never looked, just kept going.

He smiled as he reached the cab. “Esther! What do you here?”

“My lord. I wanted to deliver my note most expeditiously. I wanted you to know I was not pleased, not pleased at all!

“How dare you interfere in the running of my household! I’ve even spoken to you of it before.”

“Esther, I—”

“I told you not to do it and now you presume, presume to buy me coal. I will not have it. Goodbye. Don’t call again!” She rapped on the roof and the driver chucked at his horse and the cab moved away.

Ailesworth was left standing alone in front of his place of business, surrounded by the dockers who worked for him. They had begun to whisper and grin.

He turned, a ferocious look on his face, his lips pulled back in a snarl. He would gladly have punched any one of them.

The smiles disappeared and all appeared to be busy. He stared around him and saw no sneaky grins.

He strode to the building, knowing they were waiting for him to disappear before resuming their grins and their ribald jokes at his expense.

He climbed the stairs, two steps at a time and entered his office, a room in the corner, partitioned off from the large open space which was half filled with goods. Hassam looked up.

Ought-oh. Bad news. He’d never seen Ailesworth look so fierce. None of his business. Set-backs over the years had never produced anything more than a shrug..

Hassam sat quietly, hoping to avoid becoming the target of Ailesworth’s rage, when Lord Grainger came in.

“What ho! Do you need….” He stopped and looked at Ailesworth and then at Hassam. Hassam shrugged his shoulders in a tiny movement, as though afraid to be caught.

Drum watched Ailesworth, who hadn’t noticed his arrival. Ailesworth was clearly enraged about something. Drum remained silent, leaning against the doorframe. Ailesworth was pacing up and; down the chamber, frowning so ferociously that Drum expected him to lay a trail of smoldering floor boards behind him.

All three men were silent. Finally Ailesworth stopped and looked at Hassam and then Drum. “Do you know what that impossible woman has done? She’s told me never to return again! All because of a few coals!”

“A few coals?” Drum asked tentatively.

“Yes! I had a load of coal delivered to her house. I fixed it that she couldn’t refuse them. I told the coal heaver to dump them on the steps if she refused.

“Now she says I made a fool of her! She says I interfere too much.

“By God! I’ll interfere no more! No woman is worth all this aggravation. And all those dockers in front saw it all. I’ll be the laughing-stock of the docks!”

“No, Ailesworth. You could never be that. You know they admire you. No, fear you, more like.”

“Christ! What do I care.” He tried sitting, but jumped up immediately.

“I need to walk,” and he was gone, down the stairs and out the building. He stopped at the first group of workers he came to. They shuffled a bit away from him.

“My friend and I have had a slight difference of opinion. It’s nobody’s business, is it?”

They shook their heads. Cor, what a beast he was when he was fired up!

“And it’s particularly nobody’s business off the docks.” He gave them one last glare and strode away.

At Lady Pickering’s ball that evening, Maria and her mother arrived with the first wave of guests. Maria had tried to convince her mother that they should arrive fashionably late, but Mrs. Castle would not hear of it. She knew what good manners required, thank you very much.

Lady Pickering was not of the haute ton but she usually had younger sons as guests, out looking for a rich cit to marry. Tonight Maria had several of them around her. After all, she not only was a considerable heiress, but she was handsome, too. She had no flaws–perhaps her nose was too round–and she had a generous figure. Her manner was a little cool and she didn’t simper and blush. Several third and fourth sons that night decided she would do as a wife.

She was enjoying herself and her dance card was filling, but she couldn’t forget that these men saw her as a bank, a bank with a large pound sign on it. So she smiled and talked and when she caught one of the men with his eyes on her neckline, she knew that at least he found one part of her that was attractive without any money attached to it.

Harry Harmon was the third son of an duke, a father who gave his son a small allowance, in the hopes of encouraging an early marriage. Harry had finally admitted to himself that he needed to marry a chit with money. And he’d better do it soon or take to house breaking. Maria Castle looked to be perfect. He was pleased. He didn’t need to search the Pickering’s ballroom or hang out at any other balls. Maria would do. He’d call on her father tomorrow.

As they entered the set for their first dance together, Harry had a chance to look at Maria in a leisurely way. His smile was easy as he looked her over.

“Well, sir! I hope you’ll know me the next time you see me!”

He grinned. “You’re worth a look or ten. Don’t other men look you over?”

“No! At least I don’t catch them at it.” She couldn’t resist smiling at him. “And how do I look, sir?”

“Beautiful.” And he meant it. Her smile transformed her face. He must make her smile more often.

The steps of the dance took them apart but Harry never took his eyes from her face. She blushed at his steady regard. At the end of the dance, they were silent as they rejoined Mrs. Castle. A bevy of young men waiting for Maria were talking. One had his back to the couple. Maria heard him saying, “He’s a devil. Courting two women at the same time. Wish I had his nerve.”

As Maria sat beside her mother again, she was aware of a stir. She glanced up and saw that the man who had made the comment was looking abashed and the other men were concealing smiles.

De Sable! That’s who they were talking about! No wonder he didn’t have time to pay court to her, he was busy courting another woman.

She wondered if she could find out who the woman was?

She became more animated and flirted with all the young men around her. It seemed to her that Harmon was older than most of them. He didn’t try to flirt with her or praise her in extravagant terms. He occasionally talked to the other men, but he kept his eyes on Maria. Aware of his steady regard, she felt herself flush. Irritated, she looked at him and frowned. He winked.

She wrenched her eyes away from him and was grateful for the arrival of her partner for the next dance.

Harry watched her walk across the ballroom. She was so graceful and carried herself like a queen. He turned and made himself agreeable to Mrs. Castle, who was pleased by the attention. The young men who clustered around Maria never paid Mrs. Castle much interest. She knew she wasn’t an interesting person, but she thought they were sometimes a little rude.

Lord Harmon, on the other hand, was all that was polite. He engaged her in conversation for some ten minutes. How pleasant and easy he was to talk with!

Of course, Lord de Sable was all that was courteous, too, but he never engaged her in conversation.

No, that wasn’t true. He did but all he talked about was himself and ton gossip–none of which Mrs. Castle knew anything about. Lord Harmon was interested in her and her family. A true gentleman.

Maria was dancing with Mr. Knowlton, a slightly stout young man. He seemed to be eager to talk of his horses, but Maria smiled and led him to gossip. Then she slipped Lord de Sable’s name in and she saw him color up. Ah, ha! It was de Sable they were talking about.

“Such a charming gentleman,” she said. “Always so thoughtful and gracious.” She kept her eyes on Mr. Knowlton.

He blushed more. “Ah, yes. And very knowledgeable about horses,” and Mr. Knowlton went off on his favorite topic again.

The smile left her face and she began scowling. Mr. Knowlton caught a glance at it and stumbled. “Oh, Miss Castle, I do beg your pardon. So clumsy of me.”

She smiled again and all was well.

When she was back at her mother’s side again, she smiled up at Lord Harmon. My, he was tall! “I’ve saved the supper dance, my lord.”

The gentlemen around her groaned.

Lord Harmon’s eyes were alight. “If you’d do me the honor, Miss Castle….”

“Thank you. I’d be pleased.” She turned. “Mama?”

“My dear! You don’t do that! Apologize to Lord Harmon.”

He bowed to Mrs. Castle and took her hand. “Ma’am, I was about to ask her for that dance. She simply read my mind.”

“Yes, but….”

He squeezed her hand. She relented and smiled. “Thank you, my lord.” In a low voice, she said, “She’s more forward than she should be.”

“She’s charming. Her directness is delightful.” He smiled down at her.

“Goodness!” He released her hand. He was more charming than de Sable.

He turned and watched Miss Castle dance a quadrille with delicate steps, ignoring her partner who was talking non-stop. It was Graves. Yes, he’d talk to the empty sky.

Harmon smiled and waited.

De Sable’s appearance the next day, a clear sunny one, was elegant. He’d been a little alarmed to discover some fraying on the collars of two of his shirts. He’d cast them aside with a frown and a complaint. His valet, Smedley, said nothing. He picked up the shirts. Those collars could perhaps be turned but he’d achieved his aim: to remind his lord of his empty pockets. Smedley hadn’t been paid in two months and was contemplating a change in employment. But Lord de Sable was such a fine figure to dress. A shame there was no money. Smedley had heard rumors of a wealthy widow but he heard nothing to make him feel very secure.

De Sable was on his way to call on Esther. He’d finally pried the source of Esther’s fortune out of George. George was like a clam: he was always reluctant to share any news with anybody. As De Sable walked towards a cab stand, he wondered how to tell Mrs. Beryll. Then he thought of his shirts. What was he going to do for blunt to buy more shirts? And everything. He needed everything. He suppressed that thought quickly. He didn’t want to appear desperate.

Esther was home. Jessie showed him into the parlor. He wondered why she frowned at him.

Esther was busy upstairs when Jessie brought de Sable’s card up. “Oh, bother. Will that man ever leave me alone. And Alma gone out.

“Jessie, ask Mrs. Nelson, when she returns, to join me in the parlor. And bring tea.”

Jessie nodded and tramped down the stairs. Esther took her time fixing her hair and straightening her gown.

As she walked into the parlor, de Sable was standing by the mantle, all careless grace.

“Mrs. Beryl, your servant,” and he bowed deeply.

He did have an elegant bow.

“Lord de Sable. Please, be seated,” as she sank onto the settee.

“Madam, I prefer to stand. Or should I call you ‘my lady’?”

Esther’s back grew rigid. “I am Mrs. Beryll, my lord.”

De Sable had planned the next part. He threw himself on his knees in front of her and grasped her hand.

“Oh, Esther! I am so happy to be the one to tell you of your fortune.” He wouldn’t let her hand go. “As the man who loves you deeply, I am proud to be able to tell you of your good fortune. And to plan our future together.”

That sounded too stiff. He continued. “I have loved you from the moment I met you. I can not live without you.”

There. That should do it.

“Lord de Sable, release my hand.”

It was the Duke’s daughter who spoke and de Sable loosened his grip.

Esther pointed to the chair opposite. “Sit. There. Compose yourself and tell me what jackanapes, humgudgeon fortune you’re talking about.”

De Sable had recovered himself as he sat, pulling his waistcoat down, checking his pantaloons to be sure they were still spotless. His speech was sufficiently moving, he felt, but his nether regions were clearly not interested. That would change, of course, when he had Esther in his bed.

“Mrs. Beryll! It is no fol-da-rol. The Countess D’Aellen is looking for you. Her son has gone abroad in flight from the Magistrate and she…. Esther, are you all right?” He went on one knee and gently took her hand. She was white and appeared to have turned to stone.

He leaped to his feet and opened the door, shouting, “Maid! Where are….”

He nearly collided with Jessie bring in the tea tray.

“Hurry. Your mistress needs you.”

Jessie clattered the tray down on the table and took her mistress’ hands and chafed them, crying, “Oh, Mrs. B., oh, Mrs. B., do come round!”

Esther collected herself to find Jessie rubbing the skin off her hands and de Sable bending over her.

It was this scene that Alma encountered as walked into the parlor. “What is it?”

“Thank you, Jessie. I’m fine now. Lord de Sable, please, take your seat. I’m sure the tea will revive me,” and she leaned over to raise the teapot.

Alma stopped her hand. “No, dear, I’ll do it,” and poured out three cups of tea. “Thank you, Jessie. You may go.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” and she departed with a horrendous frown at de Sable, which startled him.

“Now just drink this, Esther. We can wait to talk of it,” and she turned to Lord de Sable to talk of the weather.

He recovered himself nicely, although he kept his eyes on Esther, who drank her tea with care.

When she finished, she put her cup down and staid, “Now, my lord, where did you hear this rumor?”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Beryll, but it is no rumor. I heard it from, well, someone heard it from an employee of Carruthers and Smythe. Ma’am, they are looking for you. The Countess D’Aellen is searching for you. In fact, she is at her town house now. Beaumont killed a man in a duel, a dreadful fellow, always fleecing young men fresh from University, deserved to die, caused one suicide.” He cleared his throat.

“At any rate, Beaumont’s gone, gone to Naples I think. Or was it Baden?” He knew he was rambling but Esther’s basilisk stare was unnerving.

“My aunt, my lord.”

“Yes! The Countess realizes she has misplaced you over the years and wants to make amends. I think she wants to adopt you.”

“Adopt me!”

De Sable was rambling. He had to get a grip on himself.

“Mrs. Beryll, if you present yourself to the Countess, I am sure you will learn all.”

Esther seemed to be locked in a dream. She was still, her eyes seeing inward. Alma and de Sable remained silent and watchful. Alma would have been content to wait for Esther to recover herself, but de Sable was too anxious.

“Madame! If you could consider my offer, I am sure it will bring much joy to us both.”

He stood. Esther came to herself and rose. “I thank you for this news and bid you good day, my lord.”

Alma moved to show him to the door. He dare not stay. Esther had become Lady Elizabeth and it unnerved him. He bowed and departed.

Alma returned. She sat and picked up her friend’s hand. “Esther. Are you all right?”

Esther stirred herself. “Yes, Alma. It’s just that his mention of my aunt brought it all back. You know,” turning to Alma, “I’d forgotten her! Isn’t that strange? My last year at Dramlee Park was so dreadful, that I’d forgotten almost anything connected to it.

“She was imperious. She should have been the Duke. Back ramrod straight, her black hair always beautifully dressed, and diamonds. She always wore a diamond ring as big as my hand, or so I thought when I was little and was presented to her to make my curtsey.

“Then–back to the nursery. How strange, to remember her.” Esther turned to Alma. “She wants to adopt me, Alma. Isn’t that ridiculous! Mayhap she’s foolish now, in her old age, and thinks I’m still a girl.”

“Was she your father’s sister or your mother’s?”

“My father’s. She resembled him. She was taller than he. It always irritated him.

“Alma, can this be true? Why would she give me money? And my cousin, my sweet cousin, Beaumont, exiled abroad. I don’t want to be his substitute. He was so nice to me.”

“Do you want to visit your aunt, Esther?”

Esther turned to her with a frown. “No. She forgot me for years. Why should I present myself with a cup in my hand, begging for money. I don’t need her money! And I certainly don’t need her to adopt me!” She got up and began pacing.

Esther was in a rage. Alma was surprised. She almost never saw her like this.

“Ignoring me! Forgetting me! She could have come and saved me those last dreadful months. But now, when I’ve saved myself, she appears, looking for a child to replace her son!”

“Is she wealthy?” Alma was trying to distract her.

“I don’t know. She must be.” Esther shrugged and then sat down to drink more tea. She said no more and Alma related her adventure with Barty, the butcher’s boy, while out shopping for a joint of mutton.

George had met Charles at the Monkey’s Paw several times and always left before Mac Pherson arrived. He began to understand Charles, or so he thought. A man, a boy really, at loose ends, jealous of his brother, filling his idle days with nonsense.

George decided to offer Charles a piece of work to do.

It was a blustery December night, and Charles was late. He nodded to George and ordered two tankards of ale. He needed to watch his pennies. All the rounds he’d stood had lowered his stash and the next allowance from the Earl wasn’t due for two weeks. He joined George and drank greedily. How good the ale tasted.

George attempted a smile. Charles didn’t notice. He decided to be sociable.

“What do you do, George? A dandy, what?”

George smiled again. “Oh, no, I labor all day in a firm of solicitors. But I always like to have a few extra irons in the fire, don’t you see. What about you? Just a man about town?”

“Yes and chuffed I am. Nearly out of the ready.” Charles stared at his tankard with a frown on his face.

“Oh, that’s a bad place to be in. I’ve been there. A person needs to cultivate opportunities, try to find a way to earn some extra shillings.”

“Well enough for you to say so. You have the people to help you. I have no one,” and here Charles frowned ferociously.

“Oh, that’s not good.” George tried to smile again. “Here now, you’ve got a friend at this table,” and he banged his empty tankard on the table.

He felt uncomfortable making that approach to Miggs, but Charles smiled and stretched out his hand. “Thank you, sir! If any time I can help you, let me know.”

“If I know of a good thing, then, I should tell you?”

“Yes! I’d do almost anything. Hate being short of the ready.”

George rose. He’d seen Mac entering the door and two more tankards heading for the table. “I’ll be in touch. Portman Square, is it?”

“Yes, Rathbone House.” He saluted George who was already out the door.

Charles had hoped George would pay for a round but he was gone. Charles shrugged and joined his friends.

The afternoon after Ailesworth’s evening call, there was an abrupt, loud knock on the door. Alma was closest, so she answered. On the step stood a brawny giant who gave Alma a broad grin.

“Are ye the mistress of this house, then?”

“No. Did you want her?”

“Ay. Ah needs to know where to unload the coals,” he said with a big gap-toothed smile, as he admired Alma.

“The coal! We didn’t order any coal!” She turned to the stair. “Esther! Can you come down?”

She hurried back to the door and found the giant staring down into the drive that went by the side of the narrow house. “Ay. I can makes that,” and he climbed back down the steps to his cart and horse. He climbed aboard and began maneuvering the horse and cart down the narrow drive.

“Wait! What are you doing?” Esther called out from the door.

He bowed his head to her and replied, “Deliverin’ coals, ma’am. Don’ fash yersel’. I see the door to the coal chute.”

“But I didn’t order any coals!”

“No, but his lordship did,” and here he gave a great laugh. It must have woken up everyone for a mile around.

Esther was beside herself. She hurried down the steps to the side of the house where the door to the coal chute was. Before she could speak, he held up his beefy hand.

“Now, missus, my lord said as how you’d object. ‘Jem,’ he said, ‘ if you have to, put them coals on the front steps, but deliver them you must.’” Jim grinned. “Got me orders, I do.

“Now, does that there door open or not?” And he pushed at it. It opened. “Aiyee! Better ‘n better! Now, excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got t’ shovel.”

Esther stood aside, bewildered, as the giant began shoveling coal through the door, in a smooth, rhythmical movement. She could hear the coal slide down the chute. What a lovely sound it was. She stood there a bit, listening.

Then she went back to the house and to Alma’s and Jessie’s questioning expression, she said, “Ailesworth.” Jessie grinned and returned to the kitchen. Alma fought not to smile.

“Oh, go ahead. Grin like Jessie. I must find a few coins to tip him.” She went upstairs.

Below stairs, Jessie and Mrs. Batson went into the back of the cellar, where the coal was falling into the coal bin. They beamed at the dull dark stuff as though it were gold.

“Warm fires, Mrs. B,” said Jessie

“Hot oven for proper bakin’ and roastin’.”

When the giant was through, Esther went down to thank him and give him his pourboire.

“Oh, no, ma’am. M’lord said, ‘Here’s your tip, Jem. Don’t take no money from the missus.”

“Oh but I must!”

“Ma’am, if you was to give it to me, I’d leave it on your front steps before I left.” He grinned at her and climbed up on his cart. He gently backed his horse and cart out of the drive and into the street. He bowed his head to her and went whistling on his way.

After the coal man left, Esther sat in the parlor. Alma peeked in at her. She didn’t dare say anything: Esther had her statue look again.

She wandered below stairs where Mrs. Batson and Jessie were happily talking. Mrs. Batson had filled the coal bucket that sat near her stove. Jessie had a loaded coal shuttle in her grasp.

‘Warm fires tonight, Mrs. N!’

“Yes, I see.” She smiled at them both. Jessie began climbing the stairs and Alma followed her, leaving Mrs. Batson humming in the kitchen.

Jessie took the coal to the parlor. “Excuse me, Mrs. B. Need to build up this fire.” She put the bucket down and used a scoop to place more coals on the meager fire. Then she filled the empty container that held coals ready for the fire and left.

Alma had followed Jessie in. “Esther, I—”

“Payment, Alma. That’s what it is. Simple payment, that’s all.”

“Esther, I don’t understand. Payment for what?”

“For his visit the other night, when you were at the theater.”

“But you said he didn’t—”

“No! But he expects to!” Esther got up and began pacing. “Gift after gift. And now this. How could I refuse those coals? Wouldn’t I be the fool, having coals all over my front step! And Jessie would be sneaking around the house shoveling up pailfuls, and the neighborhood children stealing them for their mothers.”

Alma visualized the scene and wanted to laugh. She could see Jessie chasing the urchins, swinging her coal shovel.

But Esther wasn’t laughing. “I shall write him a note and deliver it myself to Manchester Shipping. This must end, Alma. It has been an interesting, um, an interesting interlude, but I must put an end to it.

“I shall write a note. Alma, will you accompany me to the docks? I admit, I’m a little unsure how to find him.”

“Of course. If you think it’s necessary?”

“I do.”

Esther went to her bedroom where her small portable writing desk was. She sat in the only chair the room held–the room was rather small–and settled to write.

My Lord—‘

She raised her head. She could hear Jessie pouring coals into the bucket in Alma’s room. Too much. It was too much. And after she had told him he took too much on himself, was too interfering in her household matters. Her house and servants weren’t much, didn’t compare to an Earl’s household, but they were hers. Ailesworth, as the heir to an Earl, probably had a houseful of useless servants. And a cellar full of coal.

‘My Lord—

‘I allowed your man to unload his coals into

my cellar as I was incapable of stopping him.

I’m sure you were aware of this. Wouldn’t I be the fool to try and stop him!

‘I must beg your lordship’s attention: There will

be no more gifts.

“There will be no more visits.

‘I must request, nay, order you to cease your visits.

I will not be treated as a kept woman!

Esther stopped writing. Was this enough? She could feel the blood in her cheeks. How dare he!

She signed her letter, folded and sealed it. She gathered her cloak and bonnet and made her way downstairs. Alma was ready for her. They left and found a hackney a few blocks from the house.

It was cold. There was a small wind blowing at them. Esther’s cloak was old and didn’t provide much protection. Alma’s cloak was heavy and warm. Greene had give it to her. She remembered the pleasure she’d felt wearing it when it was new. It had a deep hood which she had appreciated when she wanted to conceal her identity as Josiah Greene’s mistress.

The cab was smelly and cold. They sat close together. The coachman had known where Manchester Shipping was. That was one problem solved. The trip seemed endless to Esther. They arrived at Manchester Shipping and the area in front of the building seemed to be swarming with brawny men. Esther lowered a window and called out to the nearest man, using what Alma called The Duke’s Voice.

“My good man! Would you deliver this to Manchester Shipping. To Lord Ailesworth.”

The man came over. Once he saw her, he tugged his forelock and said, “Dunno he’s there, ma’am.”

“That’s all right. Give it to his, to his office manager, then.”

“That’ll be Hassam. Ay, I will.”

She gave him the note and a coin. He grinned up at her and took his leisurely way towards the door of Manchester Shipping.

“Esther,” Alma whispered, “do you see the size of him. He’s all muscle.”

“Hm?” Esther didn’t see. She was waiting.

They didn’t have long to wait. Ailesworth barreled out the door and strode towards her. The men parted in front of him. He never looked, just kept going.

He smiled as he reached the cab. “Esther! What do you here?”

“My lord. I wanted to deliver my note most expeditiously. I wanted you to know I was not pleased, not pleased at all!

“How dare you interfere in the running of my household! I’ve even spoken to you of it before.”

“Esther, I—”

“I told you not to do it and now you presume, presume to buy me coal. I will not have it. Goodbye. Don’t call again!” She rapped on the roof and the driver chucked at his horse and the cab moved away.

Ailesworth was left standing alone in front of his place of business, surrounded by the dockers who worked for him. They had begun to whisper and grin.

He turned, a ferocious look on his face, his lips pulled back in a snarl. He would gladly have punched any one of them.

The smiles disappeared and all appeared to be busy. He stared around him and saw no sneaky grins.

He strode to the building, knowing they were waiting for him to disappear before resuming their grins and their ribald jokes at his expense.

He climbed the stairs, two steps at a time and entered his office, a room in the corner, partitioned off from the large open space which was half filled with goods. Hassam looked up.

Ought-oh. Bad news. He’d never seen Ailesworth look so fierce. None of his business. Set-backs over the years had never produced anything more than a shrug..

Hassam sat quietly, hoping to avoid becoming the target of Ailesworth’s rage, when Lord Grainger came in.

“What ho! Do you need….” He stopped and looked at Ailesworth and then at Hassam. Hassam shrugged his shoulders in a tiny movement, as though afraid to be caught.

Drum watched Ailesworth, who hadn’t noticed his arrival. Ailesworth was clearly enraged about something. Drum remained silent, leaning against the doorframe. Ailesworth was pacing up and; down the chamber, frowning so ferociously that Drum expected him to lay a trail of smoldering floor boards behind him.

All three men were silent. Finally Ailesworth stopped and looked at Hassam and then Drum. “Do you know what that impossible woman has done? She’s told me never to return again! All because of a few coals!”

“A few coals?” Drum asked tentatively.

“Yes! I had a load of coal delivered to her house. I fixed it that she couldn’t refuse them. I told the coal heaver to dump them on the steps if she refused.

“Now she says I made a fool of her! She says I interfere too much.

“By God! I’ll interfere no more! No woman is worth all this aggravation. And all those dockers in front saw it all. I’ll be the laughing-stock of the docks!”

“No, Ailesworth. You could never be that. You know they admire you. No, fear you, more like.”

“Christ! What do I care.” He tried sitting, but jumped up immediately.

“I need to walk,” and he was gone, down the stairs and out the building. He stopped at the first group of workers he came to. They shuffled a bit away from him.

“My friend and I have had a slight difference of opinion. It’s nobody’s business, is it?”

They shook their heads. Cor, what a beast he was when he was fired up!

“And it’s particularly nobody’s business off the docks.” He gave them one last glare and strode away.

At Lady Pickering’s ball that evening, Maria and her mother arrived with the first wave of guests. Maria had tried to convince her mother that they should arrive fashionably late, but Mrs. Castle would not hear of it. She knew what good manners required, thank you very much.

Lady Pickering was not of the haute ton but she usually had younger sons as guests, out looking for a rich cit to marry. Tonight Maria had several of them around her. After all, she not only was a considerable heiress, but she was handsome, too. She had no flaws–perhaps her nose was too round–and she had a generous figure. Her manner was a little cool and she didn’t simper and blush. Several third and fourth sons that night decided she would do as a wife.

She was enjoying herself and her dance card was filling, but she couldn’t forget that these men saw her as a bank, a bank with a large pound sign on it. So she smiled and talked and when she caught one of the men with his eyes on her neckline, she knew that at least he found one part of her that was attractive without any money attached to it.

Harry Harmon was the third son of an duke, a father who gave his son a small allowance, in the hopes of encouraging an early marriage. Harry had finally admitted to himself that he needed to marry a chit with money. And he’d better do it soon or take to house breaking. Maria Castle looked to be perfect. He was pleased. He didn’t need to search the Pickering’s ballroom or hang out at any other balls. Maria would do. He’d call on her father tomorrow.

As they entered the set for their first dance together, Harry had a chance to look at Maria in a leisurely way. His smile was easy as he looked her over.

“Well, sir! I hope you’ll know me the next time you see me!”

He grinned. “You’re worth a look or ten. Don’t other men look you over?”

“No! At least I don’t catch them at it.” She couldn’t resist smiling at him. “And how do I look, sir?”

“Beautiful.” And he meant it. Her smile transformed her face. He must make her smile more often.

The steps of the dance took them apart but Harry never took his eyes from her face. She blushed at his steady regard. At the end of the dance, they were silent as they rejoined Mrs. Castle. A bevy of young men waiting for Maria were talking. One had his back to the couple. Maria heard him saying, “He’s a devil. Courting two women at the same time. Wish I had his nerve.”

As Maria sat beside her mother again, she was aware of a stir. She glanced up and saw that the man who had made the comment was looking abashed and the other men were concealing smiles.

De Sable! That’s who they were talking about! No wonder he didn’t have time to pay court to her, he was busy courting another woman.

She wondered if she could find out who the woman was?

She became more animated and flirted with all the young men around her. It seemed to her that Harmon was older than most of them. He didn’t try to flirt with her or praise her in extravagant terms. He occasionally talked to the other men, but he kept his eyes on Maria. Aware of his steady regard, she felt herself flush. Irritated, she looked at him and frowned. He winked.

She wrenched her eyes away from him and was grateful for the arrival of her partner for the next dance.

Harry watched her walk across the ballroom. She was so graceful and carried herself like a queen. He turned and made himself agreeable to Mrs. Castle, who was pleased by the attention. The young men who clustered around Maria never paid Mrs. Castle much interest. She knew she wasn’t an interesting person, but she thought they were sometimes a little rude.

Lord Harmon, on the other hand, was all that was polite. He engaged her in conversation for some ten minutes. How pleasant and easy he was to talk with!

Of course, Lord de Sable was all that was courteous, too, but he never engaged her in conversation.

No, that wasn’t true. He did but all he talked about was himself and ton gossip–none of which Mrs. Castle knew anything about. Lord Harmon was interested in her and her family. A true gentleman.

Maria was dancing with Mr. Knowlton, a slightly stout young man. He seemed to be eager to talk of his horses, but Maria smiled and led him to gossip. Then she slipped Lord de Sable’s name in and she saw him color up. Ah, ha! It was de Sable they were talking about.

“Such a charming gentleman,” she said. “Always so thoughtful and gracious.” She kept her eyes on Mr. Knowlton.

He blushed more. “Ah, yes. And very knowledgeable about horses,” and Mr. Knowlton went off on his favorite topic again.

The smile left her face and she began scowling. Mr. Knowlton caught a glance at it and stumbled. “Oh, Miss Castle, I do beg your pardon. So clumsy of me.”

She smiled again and all was well.

When she was back at her mother’s side again, she smiled up at Lord Harmon. My, he was tall! “I’ve saved the supper dance, my lord.”

The gentlemen around her groaned.

Lord Harmon’s eyes were alight. “If you’d do me the honor, Miss Castle….”

“Thank you. I’d be pleased.” She turned. “Mama?”

“My dear! You don’t do that! Apologize to Lord Harmon.”

He bowed to Mrs. Castle and took her hand. “Ma’am, I was about to ask her for that dance. She simply read my mind.”

“Yes, but….”

He squeezed her hand. She relented and smiled. “Thank you, my lord.” In a low voice, she said, “She’s more forward than she should be.”

“She’s charming. Her directness is delightful.” He smiled down at her.

“Goodness!” He released her hand. He was more charming than de Sable.

He turned and watched Miss Castle dance a quadrille with delicate steps, ignoring her partner who was talking non-stop. It was Graves. Yes, he’d talk to the empty sky.

Harmon smiled and waited.

De Sable’s appearance the next day, a clear sunny one, was elegant. He’d been a little alarmed to discover some fraying on the collars of two of his shirts. He’d cast them aside with a frown and a complaint. His valet, Smedley, said nothing. He picked up the shirts. Those collars could perhaps be turned but he’d achieved his aim: to remind his lord of his empty pockets. Smedley hadn’t been paid in two months and was contemplating a change in employment. But Lord de Sable was such a fine figure to dress. A shame there was no money. Smedley had heard rumors of a wealthy widow but he heard nothing to make him feel very secure.

De Sable was on his way to call on Esther. He’d finally pried the source of Esther’s fortune out of George. George was like a clam: he was always reluctant to share any news with anybody. As De Sable walked towards a cab stand, he wondered how to tell Mrs. Beryll. Then he thought of his shirts. What was he going to do for blunt to buy more shirts? And everything. He needed everything. He suppressed that thought quickly. He didn’t want to appear desperate.

Esther was home. Jessie showed him into the parlor. He wondered why she frowned at him.

Esther was busy upstairs when Jessie brought de Sable’s card up. “Oh, bother. Will that man ever leave me alone. And Alma gone out.

“Jessie, ask Mrs. Nelson, when she returns, to join me in the parlor. And bring tea.”

Jessie nodded and tramped down the stairs. Esther took her time fixing her hair and straightening her gown.

As she walked into the parlor, de Sable was standing by the mantle, all careless grace.

“Mrs. Beryl, your servant,” and he bowed deeply.

He did have an elegant bow.

“Lord de Sable. Please, be seated,” as she sank onto the settee.

“Madam, I prefer to stand. Or should I call you ‘my lady’?”

Esther’s back grew rigid. “I am Mrs. Beryll, my lord.”

De Sable had planned the next part. He threw himself on his knees in front of her and grasped her hand.

“Oh, Esther! I am so happy to be the one to tell you of your fortune.” He wouldn’t let her hand go. “As the man who loves you deeply, I am proud to be able to tell you of your good fortune. And to plan our future together.”

That sounded too stiff. He continued. “I have loved you from the moment I met you. I can not live without you.”

There. That should do it.

“Lord de Sable, release my hand.”

It was the Duke’s daughter who spoke and de Sable loosened his grip.

Esther pointed to the chair opposite. “Sit. There. Compose yourself and tell me what jackanapes, humgudgeon fortune you’re talking about.”

De Sable had recovered himself as he sat, pulling his waistcoat down, checking his pantaloons to be sure they were still spotless. His speech was sufficiently moving, he felt, but his nether regions were clearly not interested. That would change, of course, when he had Esther in his bed.

“Mrs. Beryll! It is no fol-da-rol. The Countess D’Aellen is looking for you. Her son has gone abroad in flight from the Magistrate and she…. Esther, are you all right?” He went on one knee and gently took her hand. She was white and appeared to have turned to stone.

He leaped to his feet and opened the door, shouting, “Maid! Where are….”

He nearly collided with Jessie bring in the tea tray.

“Hurry. Your mistress needs you.”

Jessie clattered the tray down on the table and took her mistress’ hands and chafed them, crying, “Oh, Mrs. B., oh, Mrs. B., do come round!”

Esther collected herself to find Jessie rubbing the skin off her hands and de Sable bending over her.

It was this scene that Alma encountered as walked into the parlor. “What is it?”

“Thank you, Jessie. I’m fine now. Lord de Sable, please, take your seat. I’m sure the tea will revive me,” and she leaned over to raise the teapot.

Alma stopped her hand. “No, dear, I’ll do it,” and poured out three cups of tea. “Thank you, Jessie. You may go.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” and she departed with a horrendous frown at de Sable, which startled him.

“Now just drink this, Esther. We can wait to talk of it,” and she turned to Lord de Sable to talk of the weather.

He recovered himself nicely, although he kept his eyes on Esther, who drank her tea with care.

When she finished, she put her cup down and staid, “Now, my lord, where did you hear this rumor?”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Beryll, but it is no rumor. I heard it from, well, someone heard it from an employee of Carruthers and Smythe. Ma’am, they are looking for you. The Countess D’Aellen is searching for you. In fact, she is at her town house now. Beaumont killed a man in a duel, a dreadful fellow, always fleecing young men fresh from University, deserved to die, caused one suicide.” He cleared his throat.

“At any rate, Beaumont’s gone, gone to Naples I think. Or was it Baden?” He knew he was rambling but Esther’s basilisk stare was unnerving.

“My aunt, my lord.”

“Yes! The Countess realizes she has misplaced you over the years and wants to make amends. I think she wants to adopt you.”

“Adopt me!”

De Sable was rambling. He had to get a grip on himself.

“Mrs. Beryll, if you present yourself to the Countess, I am sure you will learn all.”

Esther seemed to be locked in a dream. She was still, her eyes seeing inward. Alma and de Sable remained silent and watchful. Alma would have been content to wait for Esther to recover herself, but de Sable was too anxious.

“Madame! If you could consider my offer, I am sure it will bring much joy to us both.”

He stood. Esther came to herself and rose. “I thank you for this news and bid you good day, my lord.”

Alma moved to show him to the door. He dare not stay. Esther had become Lady Elizabeth and it unnerved him. He bowed and departed.

Alma returned. She sat and picked up her friend’s hand. “Esther. Are you all right?”

Esther stirred herself. “Yes, Alma. It’s just that his mention of my aunt brought it all back. You know,” turning to Alma, “I’d forgotten her! Isn’t that strange? My last year at Dramlee Park was so dreadful, that I’d forgotten almost anything connected to it.

“She was imperious. She should have been the Duke. Back ramrod straight, her black hair always beautifully dressed, and diamonds. She always wore a diamond ring as big as my hand, or so I thought when I was little and was presented to her to make my curtsey.

“Then–back to the nursery. How strange, to remember her.” Esther turned to Alma. “She wants to adopt me, Alma. Isn’t that ridiculous! Mayhap she’s foolish now, in her old age, and thinks I’m still a girl.”

“Was she your father’s sister or your mother’s?”

“My father’s. She resembled him. She was taller than he. It always irritated him.

“Alma, can this be true? Why would she give me money? And my cousin, my sweet cousin, Beaumont, exiled abroad. I don’t want to be his substitute. He was so nice to me.”

“Do you want to visit your aunt, Esther?”

Esther turned to her with a frown. “No. She forgot me for years. Why should I present myself with a cup in my hand, begging for money. I don’t need her money! And I certainly don’t need her to adopt me!” She got up and began pacing.

Esther was in a rage. Alma was surprised. She almost never saw her like this.

“Ignoring me! Forgetting me! She could have come and saved me those last dreadful months. But now, when I’ve saved myself, she appears, looking for a child to replace her son!”

“Is she wealthy?” Alma was trying to distract her.

“I don’t know. She must be.” Esther shrugged and then sat down to drink more tea. She said no more and Alma related her adventure with Barty, the butcher’s boy, while out shopping for a joint of mutton.

George had met Charles at the Monkey’s Paw several times and always left before Mac Pherson arrived. He began to understand Charles, or so he thought. A man, a boy really, at loose ends, jealous of his brother, filling his idle days with nonsense.

George decided to offer Charles a piece of work to do.

It was a blustery December night, and Charles was late. He nodded to George and ordered two tankards of ale. He needed to watch his pennies. All the rounds he’d stood had lowered his stash and the next allowance from the Earl wasn’t due for two weeks. He joined George and drank greedily. How good the ale tasted.

George attempted a smile. Charles didn’t notice. He decided to be sociable.

“What do you do, George? A dandy, what?”

George smiled again. “Oh, no, I labor all day in a firm of solicitors. But I always like to have a few extra irons in the fire, don’t you see. What about you? Just a man about town?”

“Yes and chuffed I am. Nearly out of the ready.” Charles stared at his tankard with a frown on his face.

“Oh, that’s a bad place to be in. I’ve been there. A person needs to cultivate opportunities, try to find a way to earn some extra shillings.”

“Well enough for you to say so. You have the people to help you. I have no one,” and here Charles frowned ferociously.

“Oh, that’s not good.” George tried to smile again. “Here now, you’ve got a friend at this table,” and he banged his empty tankard on the table.

He felt uncomfortable making that approach to Miggs, but Charles smiled and stretched out his hand. “Thank you, sir! If any time I can help you, let me know.”

“If I know of a good thing, then, I should tell you?”

“Yes! I’d do almost anything. Hate being short of the ready.”

George rose. He’d seen Mac entering the door and two more tankards heading for the table. “I’ll be in touch. Portman Square, is it?”

“Yes, Rathbone House.” He saluted George who was already out the door.

Charles had hoped George would pay for a round but he was gone. Charles shrugged and joined his friends.

The afternoon after Ailesworth’s evening call, there was an abrupt, loud knock on the door. Alma was closest, so she answered. On the step stood a brawny giant who gave Alma a broad grin.

“Are ye the mistress of this house, then?”

“No. Did you want her?”

“Ay. Ah needs to know where to unload the coals,” he said with a big gap-toothed smile, as he admired Alma.

“The coal! We didn’t order any coal!” She turned to the stair. “Esther! Can you come down?”

She hurried back to the door and found the giant staring down into the drive that went by the side of the narrow house. “Ay. I can makes that,” and he climbed back down the steps to his cart and horse. He climbed aboard and began maneuvering the horse and cart down the narrow drive.

“Wait! What are you doing?” Esther called out from the door.

He bowed his head to her and replied, “Deliverin’ coals, ma’am. Don’ fash yersel’. I see the door to the coal chute.”

“But I didn’t order any coals!”

“No, but his lordship did,” and here he gave a great laugh. It must have woken up everyone for a mile around.

Esther was beside herself. She hurried down the steps to the side of the house where the door to the coal chute was. Before she could speak, he held up his beefy hand.

“Now, missus, my lord said as how you’d object. ‘Jem,’ he said, ‘ if you have to, put them coals on the front steps, but deliver them you must.’” Jim grinned. “Got me orders, I do.

“Now, does that there door open or not?” And he pushed at it. It opened. “Aiyee! Better ‘n better! Now, excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got t’ shovel.”

Esther stood aside, bewildered, as the giant began shoveling coal through the door, in a smooth, rhythmical movement. She could hear the coal slide down the chute. What a lovely sound it was. She stood there a bit, listening.

Then she went back to the house and to Alma’s and Jessie’s questioning expression, she said, “Ailesworth.” Jessie grinned and returned to the kitchen. Alma fought not to smile.

“Oh, go ahead. Grin like Jessie. I must find a few coins to tip him.” She went upstairs.

Below stairs, Jessie and Mrs. Batson went into the back of the cellar, where the coal was falling into the coal bin. They beamed at the dull dark stuff as though it were gold.

“Warm fires, Mrs. B,” said Jessie

“Hot oven for proper bakin’ and roastin’.”

When the giant was through, Esther went down to thank him and give him his pourboire.

“Oh, no, ma’am. M’lord said, ‘Here’s your tip, Jem. Don’t take no money from the missus.”

“Oh but I must!”

“Ma’am, if you was to give it to me, I’d leave it on your front steps before I left.” He grinned at her and climbed up on his cart. He gently backed his horse and cart out of the drive and into the street. He bowed his head to her and went whistling on his way.

After the coal man left, Esther sat in the parlor. Alma peeked in at her. She didn’t dare say anything: Esther had her statue look again.

She wandered below stairs where Mrs. Batson and Jessie were happily talking. Mrs. Batson had filled the coal bucket that sat near her stove. Jessie had a loaded coal shuttle in her grasp.

‘Warm fires tonight, Mrs. N!’

“Yes, I see.” She smiled at them both. Jessie began climbing the stairs and Alma followed her, leaving Mrs. Batson humming in the kitchen.

Jessie took the coal to the parlor. “Excuse me, Mrs. B. Need to build up this fire.” She put the bucket down and used a scoop to place more coals on the meager fire. Then she filled the empty container that held coals ready for the fire and left.

Alma had followed Jessie in. “Esther, I—”

“Payment, Alma. That’s what it is. Simple payment, that’s all.”

“Esther, I don’t understand. Payment for what?”

“For his visit the other night, when you were at the theater.”

“But you said he didn’t—”

“No! But he expects to!” Esther got up and began pacing. “Gift after gift. And now this. How could I refuse those coals? Wouldn’t I be the fool, having coals all over my front step! And Jessie would be sneaking around the house shoveling up pailfuls, and the neighborhood children stealing them for their mothers.”

Alma visualized the scene and wanted to laugh. She could see Jessie chasing the urchins, swinging her coal shovel.

But Esther wasn’t laughing. “I shall write him a note and deliver it myself to Manchester Shipping. This must end, Alma. It has been an interesting, um, an interesting interlude, but I must put an end to it.

“I shall write a note. Alma, will you accompany me to the docks? I admit, I’m a little unsure how to find him.”

“Of course. If you think it’s necessary?”

“I do.”

Esther went to her bedroom where her small portable writing desk was. She sat in the only chair the room held–the room was rather small–and settled to write.

My Lord—‘

She raised her head. She could hear Jessie pouring coals into the bucket in Alma’s room. Too much. It was too much. And after she had told him he took too much on himself, was too interfering in her household matters. Her house and servants weren’t much, didn’t compare to an Earl’s household, but they were hers. Ailesworth, as the heir to an Earl, probably had a houseful of useless servants. And a cellar full of coal.

‘My Lord—

‘I allowed your man to unload his coals into

my cellar as I was incapable of stopping him.

I’m sure you were aware of this. Wouldn’t I be the fool to try and stop him!

‘I must beg your lordship’s attention: There will

be no more gifts.

“There will be no more visits.

‘I must request, nay, order you to cease your visits.

I will not be treated as a kept woman!

Esther stopped writing. Was this enough? She could feel the blood in her cheeks. How dare he!

She signed her letter, folded and sealed it. She gathered her cloak and bonnet and made her way downstairs. Alma was ready for her. They left and found a hackney a few blocks from the house.

It was cold. There was a small wind blowing at them. Esther’s cloak was old and didn’t provide much protection. Alma’s cloak was heavy and warm. Greene had give it to her. She remembered the pleasure she’d felt wearing it when it was new. It had a deep hood which she had appreciated when she wanted to conceal her identity as Josiah Greene’s mistress.

The cab was smelly and cold. They sat close together. The coachman had known where Manchester Shipping was. That was one problem solved. The trip seemed endless to Esther. They arrived at Manchester Shipping and the area in front of the building seemed to be swarming with brawny men. Esther lowered a window and called out to the nearest man, using what Alma called The Duke’s Voice.

“My good man! Would you deliver this to Manchester Shipping. To Lord Ailesworth.”

The man came over. Once he saw her, he tugged his forelock and said, “Dunno he’s there, ma’am.”

“That’s all right. Give it to his, to his office manager, then.”

“That’ll be Hassam. Ay, I will.”

She gave him the note and a coin. He grinned up at her and took his leisurely way towards the door of Manchester Shipping.

“Esther,” Alma whispered, “do you see the size of him. He’s all muscle.”

“Hm?” Esther didn’t see. She was waiting.

They didn’t have long to wait. Ailesworth barreled out the door and strode towards her. The men parted in front of him. He never looked, just kept going.

He smiled as he reached the cab. “Esther! What do you here?”

“My lord. I wanted to deliver my note most expeditiously. I wanted you to know I was not pleased, not pleased at all!

“How dare you interfere in the running of my household! I’ve even spoken to you of it before.”

“Esther, I—”

“I told you not to do it and now you presume, presume to buy me coal. I will not have it. Goodbye. Don’t call again!” She rapped on the roof and the driver chucked at his horse and the cab moved away.

Ailesworth was left standing alone in front of his place of business, surrounded by the dockers who worked for him. They had begun to whisper and grin.

He turned, a ferocious look on his face, his lips pulled back in a snarl. He would gladly have punched any one of them.

The smiles disappeared and all appeared to be busy. He stared around him and saw no sneaky grins.

He strode to the building, knowing they were waiting for him to disappear before resuming their grins and their ribald jokes at his expense.

He climbed the stairs, two steps at a time and entered his office, a room in the corner, partitioned off from the large open space which was half filled with goods. Hassam looked up.

Ought-oh. Bad news. He’d never seen Ailesworth look so fierce. None of his business. Set-backs over the years had never produced anything more than a shrug..

Hassam sat quietly, hoping to avoid becoming the target of Ailesworth’s rage, when Lord Grainger came in.

“What ho! Do you need….” He stopped and looked at Ailesworth and then at Hassam. Hassam shrugged his shoulders in a tiny movement, as though afraid to be caught.

Drum watched Ailesworth, who hadn’t noticed his arrival. Ailesworth was clearly enraged about something. Drum remained silent, leaning against the doorframe. Ailesworth was pacing up and; down the chamber, frowning so ferociously that Drum expected him to lay a trail of smoldering floor boards behind him.

All three men were silent. Finally Ailesworth stopped and looked at Hassam and then Drum. “Do you know what that impossible woman has done? She’s told me never to return again! All because of a few coals!”

“A few coals?” Drum asked tentatively.

“Yes! I had a load of coal delivered to her house. I fixed it that she couldn’t refuse them. I told the coal heaver to dump them on the steps if she refused.

“Now she says I made a fool of her! She says I interfere too much.

“By God! I’ll interfere no more! No woman is worth all this aggravation. And all those dockers in front saw it all. I’ll be the laughing-stock of the docks!”

“No, Ailesworth. You could never be that. You know they admire you. No, fear you, more like.”

“Christ! What do I care.” He tried sitting, but jumped up immediately.

“I need to walk,” and he was gone, down the stairs and out the building. He stopped at the first group of workers he came to. They shuffled a bit away from him.

“My friend and I have had a slight difference of opinion. It’s nobody’s business, is it?”

They shook their heads. Cor, what a beast he was when he was fired up!

“And it’s particularly nobody’s business off the docks.” He gave them one last glare and strode away.

At Lady Pickering’s ball that evening, Maria and her mother arrived with the first wave of guests. Maria had tried to convince her mother that they should arrive fashionably late, but Mrs. Castle would not hear of it. She knew what good manners required, thank you very much.

Lady Pickering was not of the haute ton but she usually had younger sons as guests, out looking for a rich cit to marry. Tonight Maria had several of them around her. After all, she not only was a considerable heiress, but she was handsome, too. She had no flaws–perhaps her nose was too round–and she had a generous figure. Her manner was a little cool and she didn’t simper and blush. Several third and fourth sons that night decided she would do as a wife.

She was enjoying herself and her dance card was filling, but she couldn’t forget that these men saw her as a bank, a bank with a large pound sign on it. So she smiled and talked and when she caught one of the men with his eyes on her neckline, she knew that at least he found one part of her that was attractive without any money attached to it.

Harry Harmon was the third son of an duke, a father who gave his son a small allowance, in the hopes of encouraging an early marriage. Harry had finally admitted to himself that he needed to marry a chit with money. And he’d better do it soon or take to house breaking. Maria Castle looked to be perfect. He was pleased. He didn’t need to search the Pickering’s ballroom or hang out at any other balls. Maria would do. He’d call on her father tomorrow.

As they entered the set for their first dance together, Harry had a chance to look at Maria in a leisurely way. His smile was easy as he looked her over.

“Well, sir! I hope you’ll know me the next time you see me!”

He grinned. “You’re worth a look or ten. Don’t other men look you over?”

“No! At least I don’t catch them at it.” She couldn’t resist smiling at him. “And how do I look, sir?”

“Beautiful.” And he meant it. Her smile transformed her face. He must make her smile more often.

The steps of the dance took them apart but Harry never took his eyes from her face. She blushed at his steady regard. At the end of the dance, they were silent as they rejoined Mrs. Castle. A bevy of young men waiting for Maria were talking. One had his back to the couple. Maria heard him saying, “He’s a devil. Courting two women at the same time. Wish I had his nerve.”

As Maria sat beside her mother again, she was aware of a stir. She glanced up and saw that the man who had made the comment was looking abashed and the other men were concealing smiles.

De Sable! That’s who they were talking about! No wonder he didn’t have time to pay court to her, he was busy courting another woman.

She wondered if she could find out who the woman was?

She became more animated and flirted with all the young men around her. It seemed to her that Harmon was older than most of them. He didn’t try to flirt with her or praise her in extravagant terms. He occasionally talked to the other men, but he kept his eyes on Maria. Aware of his steady regard, she felt herself flush. Irritated, she looked at him and frowned. He winked.

She wrenched her eyes away from him and was grateful for the arrival of her partner for the next dance.

Harry watched her walk across the ballroom. She was so graceful and carried herself like a queen. He turned and made himself agreeable to Mrs. Castle, who was pleased by the attention. The young men who clustered around Maria never paid Mrs. Castle much interest. She knew she wasn’t an interesting person, but she thought they were sometimes a little rude.

Lord Harmon, on the other hand, was all that was polite. He engaged her in conversation for some ten minutes. How pleasant and easy he was to talk with!

Of course, Lord de Sable was all that was courteous, too, but he never engaged her in conversation.

No, that wasn’t true. He did but all he talked about was himself and ton gossip–none of which Mrs. Castle knew anything about. Lord Harmon was interested in her and her family. A true gentleman.

Maria was dancing with Mr. Knowlton, a slightly stout young man. He seemed to be eager to talk of his horses, but Maria smiled and led him to gossip. Then she slipped Lord de Sable’s name in and she saw him color up. Ah, ha! It was de Sable they were talking about.

“Such a charming gentleman,” she said. “Always so thoughtful and gracious.” She kept her eyes on Mr. Knowlton.

He blushed more. “Ah, yes. And very knowledgeable about horses,” and Mr. Knowlton went off on his favorite topic again.

The smile left her face and she began scowling. Mr. Knowlton caught a glance at it and stumbled. “Oh, Miss Castle, I do beg your pardon. So clumsy of me.”

She smiled again and all was well.

When she was back at her mother’s side again, she smiled up at Lord Harmon. My, he was tall! “I’ve saved the supper dance, my lord.”

The gentlemen around her groaned.

Lord Harmon’s eyes were alight. “If you’d do me the honor, Miss Castle….”

“Thank you. I’d be pleased.” She turned. “Mama?”

“My dear! You don’t do that! Apologize to Lord Harmon.”

He bowed to Mrs. Castle and took her hand. “Ma’am, I was about to ask her for that dance. She simply read my mind.”

“Yes, but….”

He squeezed her hand. She relented and smiled. “Thank you, my lord.” In a low voice, she said, “She’s more forward than she should be.”

“She’s charming. Her directness is delightful.” He smiled down at her.

“Goodness!” He released her hand. He was more charming than de Sable.

He turned and watched Miss Castle dance a quadrille with delicate steps, ignoring her partner who was talking non-stop. It was Graves. Yes, he’d talk to the empty sky.

Harmon smiled and waited.

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