The Leading eBooks Store Online
for Kindle Fire, Apple, Android, Nook, Kobo, PC, Mac, Sony Reader ...
The Diabolical Baron
Caroline Hanscome, who dreams of music more than men, is offered marriage by a jaded lord, Jason Kincaid. Jason had drawn her name from among those his friend had offered. Though Caroline’s parents are thrilled, she herself finds her fiancé alarming. And when Jason meets up with his first love, he questions whether he should have been more sober before choosing a bride. Regency Romance by Mary Jo Putney; originally published by Signet
, or download in or
“Lord Radford,” announced the butler in a voice whose chilly perfection exactly matched the elegant salon his lordship was entering.
Jason Kincaid, Baron Radford, could have also been characterized by the term “chilly perfection.” Certainly his appearance came as near as humanly possible to that state. His tall, broad-shouldered frame was admirably suited by flawless tailoring. Everything about him, from his mirror-bright top boots to his artfully styled black hair, proclaimed the man of fashion.
A closer study would have also revealed an athlete’s muscles beneath the coat of blue superfine. The chilliness lay in his dark cynical eyes. A naturally passionate disposition had been warped by too many people who sought his fortune and influence. There had been few indeed who had more interest in “Jason” than in “Lord Radford.”
On this occasion, a certain uneasiness lay behind his impassive face. Honoria, the dowager Lady Edgeware, had been intimidating people since the reign of George II, so discomfort was not surprising. Jason suspected he knew the cause of his aunt’s imperious summons. Her temper would not have improved during the three days he had kept her waiting for his appearance.
Disdaining preliminaries, Lady Edgeware fixed her target with snapping black eyes and attacked with a directness Napoleon might have envied. “It was your birthday last week, Radford.”
“Indeed, Aunt Honoria. Since it is April, I am not entirely surprised by the news. All of my birthdays have fallen in April, I believe.”
“I’ll have none of your insolence! By my calculations, you now have thirty-five years in your dish. What are your plans for securing the succession?”
Lord Radford permitted himself a wry inward smile. The Honorable Honoria Kincaid’s marriage to Lord Edgeware fifty-some years ago had not made her forgo allegiance to the Kincaids.
On the contrary, her persecuted relations unanimously agreed that she delighted in bullying two families. Considering the importance she placed on the Radford title, it was surprising she had held off so long before choosing to dress him down.
It would have surprised him more to know he was the only member of her two families that she felt any hesitation about interfering with. Other relatives would have understood: Lord Radford and Lady Edgeware were generally acknowledged to be the spit and image of each other, from their unyielding dispositions to the darkly sardonic eyes and tight lines around the mouths that marred the classical regularity of their faces.
“The family is a long way from running out of Kincaids, Aunt. Surely Cousin Oliver has two or three potential heirs amongst his brood?”
“Bah, they stink of the shop!” Lady Edgeware spat out, dismissing the whole branch for her nephew Oliver’s crime of marrying a young lady whose grandfather had made his fortune in trade. It was of no consequence that Oliver and his growing family showed every sign of being happier than any of her more toplofty relatives.
“Of course you weren’t the elder son, but your brother Robert has been dead more than five years now. You are perfectly aware of your obligation to your name, but I have yet to hear you’ve paid the least attention to any eligible female. Keep as many married mistresses as you like, but it’s high time you found yourself a wife and got an heir on her.”
“Such plain speaking, Aunt Honoria! Almost I regret to tell you I have been thinking along similar lines myself,” Jason drawled.
“Indeed? Who’s the gel?” Honoria demanded.
“I’ve no one in mind,” he said indifferently, “but I don’t think a suitable wife should be hard to find. The title is one of the oldest in England. More important, the Radford estates are known to be extensive and prospering.”
“I can’t quarrel with how much you’ve increased the property yields,” the dowager said grudgingly.
If so, it was the first time he’d heard of something she couldn’t quarrel with.
“But I’ll never understand,” she continued irascibly, “why you felt it necessary to waste such money on schools for the tenants’ children and on rebuilding cottages.”
“Would you believe I did it from Christian charity?” he inquired.
Taking her ladyship’s snort for an answer, he continued, “The money I ‘wasted’ is actually the cause of the improved yields you so admire. Tenants who don’t suffer rheumatism from damp houses and who have a modicum of education prove to be vastly more productive farmers. My father seldom invested a groat in Wildehaven, and the smaller properties were in even worse case. My dear brother could never even remember his bailiff’s name. Land will not prosper without proper care, and only a fool will kill his golden goose.”
Lady Edgeware gave a bark of cynical laughter. “There are plenty of such around. I hear that you are interested in acquiring some lands from one of your foolish neighbors.”
“Your sources of information never cease to amaze me. My distinguished neighbor the Earl of Wargrave managed to alienate every friend and relative he ever had before he died last year. The lawyers are trying to determine the heir. If there is no one left in the direct line, Wargrave’s nephew, that wastrel Reggie Davenport, will inherit. He may be happy to sell the unentailed property to finance his extravagances. The lands would make a nice addition to Wildehaven.”
“It was typical of that old screw Wargrave that he would lose track of his own youngest son,” Lady Edgeware said maliciously.
“Shocking language, Aunt. In fairness to Wargrave, it was logical to assume that one of the two older brothers would inherit. If I recall correctly, the youngest son left the country a good few years ago amidst some kind of scandal.”
“He ran off with Rankin’s young sister. She was betrothed to some rich old lecher, and young Julius thought to rescue her. I never heard anything after that, but I suppose they ended up pinching pennies somewhere on the Continent. No doubt she eventually regretted her romantic escape. Love is poor compensation for poverty. If Julius is alive, he’s the sixth Earl of Wargrave now. Or perhaps his son, if he had one and the lawyers can find him,” Lady Edgeware said thoughtfully.
“If there is even a ‘him’ to find,” Radford said dryly.
“To return to our original discussion, may I assume that I will see you betrothed before this Season is over?” his aunt asked.
“Very well, you know what is due to your name. Let me know when you’ve chosen her so that I may hold a dinner to introduce the gel to her new family.”
“You shall be one of the very first to know, Aunt. It only remains for me to make my choice, then inform the lucky lady.”
* * * *
The atmosphere that evening was rather different when the question of Lord Radford’s marriage rose again. He and his boon companion, the Honorable George Fitzwilliam, had been lingering over their port for quite some time. While they weren’t precisely bosky, they were certainly past the point where discretion and judgment operate normally. In fact, they were ripe for becoming outrageous.
“Fine color this wine has, George,” said Radford as he held the glass up to the candlelight. “I’m glad I laid in several cases’ worth. By the way, I believe I’ll be getting married.”
His friend blinked. “Perhaps we’ve had enough to drink. It sounded distinctly like you said you were going to marry. When one starts hearing voices, it’s time to lay off the wine. Otherwise, I’ll have a headache that would flatten a plow horse in the morning,” he said with owl-like solemnity.
The friends did not much resemble each other. Lord Radford associated with the sporting Corinthian set and affected an elegantly simple mode of dress which perfectly suited his athletic form.
Shorter, fair-haired, and slighter in build, the Honorable George Fitzwilliam looked much younger than Radford, though in fact only three years separated them. While he was described by some as a “fashionable fribble,” it was an unjust accusation that would have wounded his sensibilities. Certainly he enjoyed following, and occasionally creating, the very latest fashions, and he wasn’t above wearing quite daring waistcoats.
However, he avoided extravagances such as over-padded shoulders, lilac pantaloons, and neckcloths so high as to prevent the wearer from turning his head. Since he was charming and correct in his manners, hostesses always welcomed him for his willingness to dance with even the most regrettable female guest with never a loss of good nature.
“You heard me correctly, George. As my Aunt Honoria has kindly pointed out, it is time I married. So I shall do the deed.”
“How splendid! What lovely lady has consented to be your bride?”
“None yet. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. You’re much more au courant with the fashionable world than I. What is the selection this Season?”
George gasped. “Do you just mean to choose one, like a horse at Tattersall’s?”
“George, you do me an injustice! I spend considerably more thought on selecting my horses.”
“But. . . but what about love?” The Honorable George was something of an authority on the subject since he succumbed to the emotion at least half a dozen times a year. While his tender feelings had yet to show much longevity, they were undoubtedly sincere while they lasted. His own marriage would certainly follow the discovery of a lady for whom he could maintain a tendre for a twelvemonth.
“Bah, love is an illusion of the young and feckless, an illusion maintained by lady novelists for their own enrichment. How many couples of our order have you known to stay ‘in love’ for any length of time?”
“Well...there are the Grovelands. No, he’s taken to keeping opera dancers again. Lord and Lady Wilberton...no, I heard they had a flaming row at a ball last month and haven’t spoken since. And…well, my own parents are dashed fond of each other. You see?”
“On the contrary, you confirm my point. Wasn’t theirs was an arranged marriage? A system that has gone out of style, but which had much to commend it. A rational analysis of family background, fortune, and station in life is surely the best foundation for a successful union.”
“I very much doubt it,” George said boldly. “And even if you don’t believe in love, young ladies do.”
Jason’s mouth crooked cynically. “I’m sure any young lady will find it easy to fall in love with my title and fortune even if my person fails to please. I have been defending myself from matchmaking mamas and ambitious debutantes for years. Now that I am ready to set up my nursery, I will have my pick of the available fillies.”
George asked incredulously, “There has never been anyone that you wished to marry?”
“Well…once when I was very young,” Lord Radford said with a softening of his eyes.
He gently swirled the wine in his crystal goblet, divining the past from its depths. “I was just down from Cambridge and hunting in the shires when I met her. I thought she was the most dazzling female I’d ever laid eyes on. Rode like Diana, hair like flame, and a figure that would keep a Cyprian wrapped in jewels for the rest of her life. It appeared to be love at first sight, but when I offered her my hand, my not inconsiderable fortune, and my honorable name, she threw them back in my face.”
“You actually made an offer for her, and she turned you down?” Having seen women languish after his friend for years, George was hard put to imagine so firm a rejection. “Was she attached to someone else?”
“She gave every evidence of returning my feelings.” Radford stopped in mid-sentence at an unexpectedly vivid stab of long-buried pain.
A gentleman could not speak of what had passed between him and a lady of gentler birth, but he never forgot those forbidden kisses stolen in the garden one magic night. Such sweetness, and such fire....
He had searched in many places for their equal, but without success. Until finally he ceased searching.
He shook off the memory. “One would have thought she would welcome the match. Her birth was unexceptionable, but her father had gambled away his fortune and they were living in reduced circumstances. She was due to be presented the next Season, but it’s doubtful the family could have afforded to have done the thing in style. It would be hard to catch a duke when looking shabby genteel.”
“Do you think she would have accepted you if you’d been Lord Radford instead of a younger son?”
Honesty compelled him to say, “Actually, I don’t think she was hanging out for a title. I’m not even sure she knew my father was Lord Radford. It all happened so quickly. Later she married a military man and disappeared from society. Doubtless she has long since succumbed to fat and freckles.”
“That doesn’t support your belief that all women are mercenary.”
“But it does prove women are incomprehensible. At least the mercenary ones are easy to understand. Since they are the vast majority, I shouldn’t have any trouble selecting the future Lady Radford. To get back to my earlier question, who is available this Season who would be suitable? You are much more in touch with the Marriage Mart than I. Choose the future Lady Radford for me!”
George frowned. “Do you seriously think that any girl you offer for will accept you?”
“In a word, yes. Or to be more accurate, she’ll accept my fortune and title.”
His friend smiled mischievously. “Would you care to stake your team of grays on it?”
Radford considered. “That depends. What is your stake, and what are the conditions?”
“What if I bet a season of salmon fishing at my Scottish uncle’s estate? He allows only a dozen guests a year, and I’m sure he’d be willing to accept you in my stead.”
George made the offer with a touch of guilt. He wasn’t over-fond of fishing himself, but since Jason was addicted to all forms of sport, the incomparable Craigmore waters would make a desirable prize. And if Jason lost, the Honorable George would enjoy cutting a considerable dash at the fashionable park promenades.
He continued, “Tell me your requirements for a wife, and I’ll write down the name of every eligible lady who fits them. Then we’ll put the names in a bowl and you can draw one out. You must take the chosen lady to the altar within six months to win the wager.”
“Done! It’s as good a way of choosing a wife as any other.” Radford thought. “She must be of good birth, naturally, and with no madness, chronic health problems, or seriously offensive behavior in her family.”
“You’ve just eliminated half of the ton.” George chuckled. “But not unreasonable requirements. What else?”
“She must be passably good-looking—no sour-faced antidotes since I shall have to see her in the daylight sometimes. And no spoiled, petulant Beauties who are used to having odes written to their eyebrows and who expect men to languish at their feet.”
“Right, no Beauties. Is there anything else you particularly want? Think carefully,” George warned. “You are choosing your life’s companion here, Jason.”
Radford shrugged. “Any well-brought-up, docile maiden of average looks will do. How many can you come up with?”
The next half-hour was punctuated by the scratching of a pen and George’s muttering of such phrases as, “No, Miss Emerson-Smythe won’t do, she has a distinct squint,” and, “Hamilton’s run off his legs and would demand some ridiculous settlement for that frumpy daughter of his.” A bottle of wine later, he had more than a dozen names ready for the drawing.
“Here you are, Jason, a careful selection of the most eligible young ladies the polite world can offer. Choose your future!” Mr. Fitzwilliam dropped the slips of paper in a bowl, first dumping the nuts it contained on the table, then swirled the bowl ceremoniously and held it well above his head.
Jason stood, carefully adjusted his cuffs, and reached into the bowl. A moment’s fumbling, then he pulled a slip out, opened it, and stared at the name.
“Who is she?” George said eagerly.
“Caroline Hanscombe. The name is unfamiliar to me. What can you tell me about her?”
His friend looked a bit disappointed as possession of the coveted team of grays became unlikely. “She shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. She’s a quiet little thing with no conversation. Not unattractive, but two or three years older than the average debutante. Almost on the shelf. Her parents kept her back to present her with a younger sister. Her father, Sir Alfred Hanscombe, is a bit of an oaf but wellborn enough. The sister, Gina, is a jolly strapping wench, much livelier—but she’s nearly betrothed. Still, I’m sure Miss Hanscombe will make you a fine, tractable wife, or I shouldn’t have entered her name.”
“Caroline Kincaid, Lady Radford. It sounds well enough. I suppose she’ll be at Almack’s tomorrow night with the rest of the husband-hunting maidens. Lord, I haven’t been to one of those stuffy assemblies in years—courting has hazards I hadn’t anticipated. Shall we drink to my future wife?”
Raising their glasses, they solemnly clinked them together. “To Lady Radford!”
* * * *
“Aunt Jessica, can you give me one good reason why I should go to Almack’s tonight?”
Jessica Sterling raised her auburn head from her mending and smiled sympathetically at her favorite visitor. “Well, your stepmama will insist on it, for one.”
“That’s a compelling reason but not a good one. Truly, Jess, isn’t there some way I can get off this marriage-go-round?” Caroline Hanscombe raised her tawny head from the lute she was tuning, her deep blue eyes shaded with humorous pleading. While her proportions were pleasing and her movements graceful, she was characterized as “a mere dab of a girl” by more than one critical elder. She forgot her shyness only with close friends or when she was absorbed in music; then her delicate face relaxed to a dreamy, ethereal loveliness.
More often, her considerable intelligence and humor were concealed behind the anxious look produced by her stepmother’s continual criticism. Her small stature and dark blond coloring gave her a chameleon-like ability to fade into the background on the numerous occasions when she wished to avoid notice. On this early-morning visit to the aunt who was also her best friend, she could speak her mind in a way impossible under her parents’ roof.
“Oh, Caro, I do wish you enjoyed the parties more. They can be quite fun—I enjoyed my own come-out tremendously.”
“Confess, Aunt: you haven’t a shy bone in your body. And beautiful as you are, half the men in London must have been languishing for a single look from your glorious green eyes.”
Jessica chuckled engagingly. “It wasn’t quite like that. While I attracted some attention—including, my girl, sixteen sonnets and no fewer than three odes—I was considered too headstrong by the high sticklers. And indeed, they were right. I wouldn’t want you to follow my social example too closely. Although,” she said parenthetically, “I do believe I would have attracted less censure had I not had red hair. It was very hard to pass unnoticed! You are much better at rendering yourself invisible than I. But it would be nice if you could see the Season as something other than torture.”
“But it is torture! I feel paralyzed by shyness whenever I meet someone new. And when one of the dragons looks me over and so clearly finds me wanting . . . ! Almack’s is the worst of all. The patronesses are positively panting to find something wrong with us trembling mortals. I shrink to think of it.”
“Still, it is a young woman’s best opportunity to meet a future husband. Much of aristocratic Britain gathers in London to mingle. It gives you the opportunity to meet people you would never discover buried on your father’s estate in Wiltshire.”
Caroline sighed. “Since the purpose of it all is to catch a husband, I still cannot become enthusiastic. I don’t want to marry; I want to move in here with you. Apart from Signore Ferrante’s house, this is the only place I have ever been comfortable. And while he has been the best and kindest of music masters, I can’t imagine that he would want me to live with him.”
Jessica’s gaze softened as she looked at her niece. “You know I would love to have you. But you are too young to bury yourself with a widowed aunt and her daughter in an unfashionable neighborhood. Marriage is what you make of it—you can see it as a trap or as a girl’s main chance to change her life. If you didn’t like the way you were raised, attach a man in a different mold from your father. It’s something of a gamble, of course, but it makes life more interesting.”
Caroline giggled mischievously. “Jessica, you’re incorrigible. You look and sound exactly the way you did when you were breaking all those hearts at seventeen. I was only eight then, but I remember clearly. It’s all very well for you to say ‘attach a man’ as if it were just a matter of making your choice. That may have been true for you, but I have no such magical power over the opposite sex. And I wouldn’t want such power! I can truly think of no happier life than to move in here with you and Linda and your admirable pianoforte.”
Jessica sighed and applied herself to her sewing for a few moments. While complimentary gentlemen were fond of saying that she looked no more than a girl, she felt the weight of her experiences if not her years. The life of an officer’s wife had been exciting, but also full of fears and constant change. She was thirty years old, had borne a child and buried a husband, and would never be truly young again.
“Things change, love. It may seem like the ideal life for you now, but nothing remains the same. Linda will grow up and marry, you might start longing for a nursery of your own. I might even marry myself. One can’t choose a way of life and say, ‘It will stay like this.’’”
“You think you might marry again? This is the first time I’ve ever heard you mention the possibility.”
“While I have accepted the idea of remarriage in principle, it may never happen in practice. My income is not great, but it is adequate, and I do enjoy my freedom. It would take someone very special to make me wish to marry again, and that is unlikely to happen a third time.”
“A third time? Was there someone besides John?” Caroline looked up in surprise from the now-tuned lute.
“Oh, just one of those calf-love affairs.” Her aunt shrugged dismissively. “I ruined it through my foolish temper, though I’m sure it was doomed anyway because we were both so young. Still, it was very ... intense. One doesn’t meet too many kindred spirits in a lifetime.”
Caroline’s curiosity was aroused, but since her aunt had closed the subject, she struck a chord on the lute and said, “Shall we return once more to the dread topic of Almack’s? Tell me what I should wear, then I shall play you some of the new Elizabethan dances I have learned.” She underlined her last words with several toe-tapping measures.
“Minx! I know perfectly well you have been dressing as unbecomingly as possible to repel potential suitors.” She smiled wryly. “Though it’s unkind of me to admit it, all that has been required is wearing what your stepmother bids you. Her taste is adequate for herself and her high-colored daughters, but does nothing for you, as well you know. When you meet a man you fancy, you’ll start wearing clothes that do you justice. So choose whatever gown least becomes you, and let us hear your new dances.”
* * * *
The law firm of Chelmsford and Marlin, Solicitors, resembled any other such office in the City of London. Bland and impenetrable, it sat on its secrets. Inside, the young man climbing the stairs to Josiah Chelmsford, senior partner, moved with a hesitation beyond the physical limp of his right leg. His face was worn with an accumulation of fatigue and pain—a familiar look on soldiers who had fought for England and were no longer needed in the aftermath of Waterloo.
The man known as Richard Dalton was glad to have closed the book on that chapter of his life. Waterloo lay ten months in the past, and much of that interval had been spent learning to walk again. He approached what the doctors thought an impossible task with the silent determination that was one of his chief characteristics.
That same iron will had kept his command nearly intact while fighting across four countries, and inspired his troops with a loyalty and respect bordering on reverence. Yet though he still wore his faded uniform, in his heart he was a captain no longer.
Like most people, he regarded lawyers warily, but a chance glimpse of a small advertisement had brought him here today.
ANYONE KNOWING THE WHEREABOUTS OF JULIUS DAVENPORT OR ANY OF HIS HEIRS IS ASKED TO CONTACT CHELMSFORD AND MARLIN, HOLBORN, TO LEARN SOMETHING OF BENEFIT TO SAID JULIUS DAVENPORT AND HEIRS.
The advertisement had been running in the Gazette for months, though Richard had been in no position to see it. When it did catch his eye, he very nearly did not respond. But curiosity outweighed lethargy, and now he was being announced by the surly law clerk. “Captain Richard Dalton to see you.”
“Come in, come in!” Josiah Chelmsford’s brusque voice carried easily across the cluttered office. The rotund lawyer glanced up impatiently from his paper-covered desk, then paused with an arrested expression on his face.
Surveying his visitor carefully, he saw a young man of medium height and wiry build, with a gaunt face that would have been handsome were it less tired. Needs fattening up, the lawyer thought. The thick brown hair was fashionably casual, but through nature, not artifice. Changeable hazel eyes with a crinkle of laughter lines looked from a face browned by years in a harsher sun than England’s.
The lawyer stood up slowly, extending his hand over the desk. “Don’t tell me you are anyone other than Julius Davenport’s son, because I won’t believe you.”
The smile that lit Richard’s face as he shook Chelmsford’s hand made him look younger than his twenty-eight years. “You knew my father, sir? I am said to resemble him greatly.”
“You do indeed. The features show some of your mother, but the build and coloring and overall impression are Julius to the life. Where is your father now?”
“Dead these last three years.”
Chelmsford sighed and shook his head as he settled back into his chair. “Have a seat, boy. It is what I feared. I’d heard from him now and again over the years—not much, just an occasional note. But it has been too long since last he wrote. What happened, if you’ll pardon my asking?”
“He and my mother were sailing a small boat in the Greek Isles. A sudden squall came up—they had no chance.” Richard’s voice was tight; he paused a moment, then continued. “It was what they would have wanted, to go together. Few people get the chance to die doing what they love, with the one they love most.”
He stopped abruptly, having said more than he intended. He had spoken to no one of the tragedy since the village priest’s letter reporting the accident had reached him in Spain. First he couldn’t talk about it, and then there had been no one who had known his family. Living in a world where the friend one breakfasted with might be dead by nightfall, it had seemed wrong to burden another with his private grief. Speaking of his parents now brought a sense of release, a loosening of the knot of tension he had carried for years.
Deliberately lightening his tone, Richard said, “What is this talk of ‘benefit’ in your advertisement? My father was heir to a chest of diamonds, perhaps?”
“Not precisely,” the lawyer said seriously. “Tell me, how much do you know of your parents’ background?”
“Almost nothing, really,” Richard replied. “I know they left England abruptly at the time of their marriage, and they never talked of earlier times. I do know my father’s real name was Davenport, but we always used the name Dalton.”
“And you never knew the reason why?” Chelmsford persisted.
“One doesn’t spend too much time speculating about a parent’s unlawful conduct,” Richard said dryly. “I suspect my father killed someone in a duel— a matter concerning my mother, perhaps. He was lethal with both sword and pistol, and would not have hesitated to use them if necessary.
“As a child I just accepted the name change—only later did I wonder. I think my parents wanted to forget the past. They lived very much in the present, wasting no time on regrets or worries about the future.”
“Your guess is correct. There was indeed a duel.” The lawyer gave a short bark of laughter. “It was no great loss to the world. Lord Barford was a filthy old roué, and had been living on borrowed time for years. He was betrothed to your mother against her will. She and your father were childhood playmates and sweethearts, but both sets of parents objected to the match since neither of them had a fortune. Julius fought and killed Barford. His father disowned him over the scandal—they’d never got on well. After that, it was not surprising your parents preferred the Continent. Do you have any idea who your paternal grandfather was?”
“Some gentleman named Davenport, I assume.”
“Not ‘some gentleman.’ Your grandfather was the fifth Earl of Wargrave. And with your father dead, you are the sixth earl.”
A heavy silence hung in the dusty office. A nearby church bell could be heard striking the noon hour. Richard felt a chaotic whirl of emotions, but the predominant one was anger. His eyes narrowed and his voice was clipped as he said, “I want no part of it. That damned old man rejected my mother and father, and I want nothing of his. Nothing!”
He stood and stalked to the window, tension in every line of his body. As he looked across the sweep of London, his irritation ebbed, leaving amusement in its wake. It was a strange reaction to what most people would consider a honeyfall. Anger aimed at an unknown grandfather was a waste. Being cut off from their families hadn’t ruined his parents’ lives; on the contrary, he had never known two happier people.
When he was relaxed again, he turned back to Josiah and said steadily, “Quite apart from how my father was treated, I have no wish to be an earl. Great wealth is a great burden. I want nothing more from life now than my freedom.”
“Since when has responsibility been a question of choice?” the solicitor asked. “Your grandfather was an evil-tempered old tyrant who did little for the land or the people he controlled. The heir after you is an extravagant rake who will complete the destruction of Wargrave. Do you have any idea how many families depend on the estates you now own?”
“No, nor do I care. It is nothing to me. I lived the first half of my life out of England. I was schooled here, but spent the next seven years fighting this country’s battles under conditions that would cause convicts to riot. Do not speak to me of responsibility. I have paid any debt I owe England a dozen times over.”
The hazel eyes were unflinching, and Chelmsford was forcibly reminded of Julius Davenport thirty years before, declaring family and fortune of no importance when weighed against the woman he loved.
“I have no desire to force you into anything. I was far too fond of your father to coerce his son. But I think he hoped you would come back here someday.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he sent notarized copies of his wedding lines and your birth certificate as those events occurred. He was the youngest son but life is uncertain. There was always a chance you would inherit, and he must have wanted to make it easy for you to prove your identity. Don’t you think you owe it to yourself and him to look at what you are throwing away? You may find a feeling for your heritage that goes beyond the burdens involved. Or is there some other part of the world that calls you?”
“No, there is nowhere else I wish to go,” Richard said slowly. His anger had passed, leaving weariness in its wake. With his parents dead he no longer had a home. The handful of military friends who had survived the wars were closer than brothers, but they were scattered to their own lives now. There was no place or person he owed any special loyalty. And only a fool would cast aside even an unwanted fortune without investigating it first. “What is this legacy you are so anxious to foist on me?”
Content to have captured the captain’s attention, Josiah Chelmsford started to explain what it meant to be the Earl of Wargrave.