A Most Unconventional Match (4 page)

BOOK: A Most Unconventional Match
11.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Chapter Three

al had just finished his inspection of the Lowery boy's soldier when a door further down the hall opened and closed. ‘That's Mama's studio,' the child said, excitement in his eyes. ‘Mayhap she's done now. Let's go see!'

Hal tried to ignore the sinking sensation suddenly spiralling in his gut. He was rising to his feet when a swarthy man in a freize coat, hat pulled down low over his eyes, brushed past them, a frowning Sands in his wake. Without a backward glance, the man exited through the door the butler hurriedly opened for him.

‘Now!' the boy said urgently, tugging on Hal's hand. ‘While Sands is busy!'

Hal tried to summon the words to tell the child that although he might scurry in to visit his mama, Hal ought to wait for the butler to announce him. But when the boy looked up, a pleading look on his face as he whispered ‘Please', against his better judgement, Hal allowed the boy to lead him down the hallway.

Hal had barely time enough to wonder why such a rough-looking gent had been paying a call on Mrs Lowery before the child had him at the doorway. One rapid knock later, the boy pushed open the door and hurtled into the room.

‘Mama, Mama, look at the general!' he cried as he ran in. ‘He's hurt. We need to fix him!'

Halting on the threshold, Hal looked over at the woman he'd not seen in so long. When Elizabeth Lowery glanced up from her son and saw Hal, he felt as if all the air had suddenly been sucked from the room.

She wore a simple black gown, a harsh shade, his mama said, that robbed the colour from a lady. But not from Elizabeth. The midnight hue rather emphasised the fairness of her hair, gleaming gold in the pale light from the window. The flush of peach at her cheekbones set off the cream of her face and the blaze of her eyes, deep cerulean like the noon sky at midsummer. The oval face with its pointed chin was a touch fuller than he remembered, while a few tiny lines at corners of her eyes imbued it with character.

This was no flawless ingénue, poised to begin life, but a vibrant, experienced woman who had lived, loved and laughed. A woman who stole his breath just as easily as she had seven years ago, while the force of the connection he felt to her froze him in place on the doorstep.

Amid the rush of sensation, one disjointed thought emerged: she was even more beautiful now than the first time he'd seen her.

While his pulse thrummed in his ears and he struggled to breathe, Hal dimly noted the child holding the soldier up to her, his words tumbling over each other as he tried to explain what had happened to his toy.

Rising to her feet, Elizabeth Lowery hushed her son with a gesture of her hand. ‘David, you are being impolite. First you must introduce your visitor.'

Hal forced his body into motion and found his tongue. ‘Hal Waterman, ma'am,' he said, bowing. ‘Nicky's friend. Just returned from the north and read of your loss. My sincere regrets.'

‘He's going to be my friend, too, Mama,' the boy interrupted. ‘He says while Uncle Nicky is in It-tal-lee he can fix the general for me.'

‘David, you mustn't impose on Mr Waterman,' his mother reproved. ‘And what are you doing down here? Where is Nurse? And Sands?' Rubbing her hands together distractedly, she gave Hal a tremulous smile. ‘I do apologise, Mr Waterman. You must think you've stumbled into Bedlam.'

At the subtle correction, the child drooped, his eyes lowering, his hand with the broken toy falling back to his side. ‘I'm sorry, Mama,' he murmured. ‘I'll go back up. But I thought you would want to know about the general. So we can fix him. Like Papa would.'

Elizabeth's eyes sheened and she took a ragged breath. ‘I know, dearest. Papa fixed everything. We'll see what we can do, but later.' Giving her son a quick hug, she clasped his shoulders and gently turned him toward the door. ‘Go back up now, there's a good boy.'

His small shoulders hunched, David nodded. Chin wobbling, he walked towards the door.

The child's anguish, clearly visible on his woebegone face, burned through Hal's haze of bewitchment. In the figure of Elizabeth he could almost see his own mother, brushing him off, sending him away, too obsessed by her own wants and needs to spare the few moments necessary to comfort a distressed child.

Sympathy—and anger—reviving, he held out his hand as the boy walked past him. ‘Still be friends,' he said, taking the small fingers in his large ones and shaking them. ‘Come back and fix the general.'

The boy's eyes widened. ‘You will?' he asked. When Hal nodded, a smile broke out on his face. ‘Then you will be my new best friend!'

‘David, you mustn't trouble Mr Waterman—' his mother objected behind them, but Hal silenced her with a shake of his head. ‘No trouble. Glad to do it. Until later.' He gave David and his soldier a salute.

Giggling, the boy returned it before scampering from the room. Setting his jaw with firm purpose, Hal turned to face Elizabeth Lowery.

Trying to mentally regather the now-scattered bits of the speech he'd rehearsed, Hal said, ‘Sorry to intrude, but know your family is away. My best friend, Nicky. He'd want me to act for him. Check with your man of business, help in any way I can.' Champion the interests of your son, he added silently.

‘My…my man of business?' Putting her hands to her flushed cheeks, Elizabeth laughed disjointedly and her lips trembled. ‘You're terribly kind, Mr Waterman, but I couldn't bother you with our problems.'

Hal frowned. Something wasn't right here. One of the few benefits of his verbal affliction was that his enforced silence had made him a keen observer of the people and events around him. Suddenly he recalled the rough man in the freize coat. ‘Did previous caller upset you?'

Tears gathered at the corners of her lovely eyes and she pinched her trembling lips together. Swiping a hand over her eyes impatiently, she said, ‘Well…yes, but I cannot ask you to—'

Hal waved a hand, his mind already going over the implications of a bully-boy tough calling on a lady at her home. ‘Pretend I'm Nicky. Here to help. 'Tis what Nicky would do. Sarah, too.'

She seemed genuinely distressed. Maybe that excused her brushing her son aside—this time, Hal thought, still studying her.

Her tear-glazed eyes inspected his face. ‘Are you sure?' she asked. ‘You're right, I would turn to Nicky, were he available. I know I ought not to involve you, but I truly have no idea what to do. And Nicky and Sarah have both spoken so often and so highly of you, that, although we are but little acquainted, I feel as if I know you.'

Hal shrugged. ‘Simple. Do anything for Nicky. Nicky do anything for you. Family. Besides, son's new best friend.'

That earned him a feeble smile. Finally she nodded. ‘Very well, I shall tell you.'

‘What did the man want?'

‘Though it seems incredible, the caller, a Mr Smith, claims my husband borrowed money from his employer, a Mr Blackmen. Money he now wants back, with interest, if I correctly understood his implication. He said if I do not pay him, he could have my son and I evicted from this house and sent to Newgate.'

Her eyes went unfocused as she stared into the distance. Bringing her arms up, she crossed them over her chest and hugged her shoulders. ‘He said he might…' Her voice trailed off and she shuddered.

Viewing that defensive pose, Hal had no difficulty imagining what the brawny interloper might have demanded of this beautiful, vulnerable woman who'd had only an elderly servant to protect her. That some low-born ruffian dared even imagine he could despoil Elizabeth Lowery's genteel loveliness sent fury rushing through Hal's veins..

If the miscreant had so much as touched Elizabeth, he was a dead man.

‘Did he hurt you?' Hal demanded.

Evidently startled by the volume and intensity of his voice, Elizabeth jumped, her gaze darting back to Hal. ‘N-no. He…he only frightened me a little, as I'm sure he meant to do.'

‘Sure you are unharmed?' Hal persisted, already envisioning his hands around the tough's thick neck.

He must have looked as fierce as he felt, for her eyes widened and a smile quirked her lips. ‘There is no need to track him down and tear him limb from limb, I assure you.'

‘Won't bother you again, swear it. Check my contacts at Bow Street. Take care of him.'

Her wry smile gentled. ‘Thank you,' she said softly. ‘I feel safer already. To reiterate, he said his name was Smith and his employer a Mr Blackmen, although I cannot be sure those are their actual names. He said that Mr Lowery had borrowed money to fund his antique purchases.'

She frowned, her gaze thoughtful. ‘My husband delighted in his collection. I know he bought several fine new statues just the month before his…his death. Shall I make a note for you of what he purchased and when?'

Hal gave a negative shake of his head. ‘No need. Have it here.' He pointed to his head. ‘Not much conversation, but good memory,' he said, his mind racing through the possibilities.

Bow Street knew most of the moneylenders. Even if the man had given a false name, Hal was confident they could run him to ground.

If Lowery had indeed borrowed money from a usurer, there was no legal way the lender could recover more than the principal. Whatever that sum had been, Hal would repay it at once to ensure Mrs Lowery received no further friendly little visits. If upon review the Lowery estate hadn't the funds to reimburse him, he knew Nicky would pay him back when the family returned from their holiday.

And despite Elizabeth Lowery's reassurance that she was unharmed, he still intended to pay a little visit on the man who'd invaded her house today.

‘I don't know why Everitt would resort to consulting a moneylender,' Mrs Lowery's troubled voice recalled him. ‘He's always been an avid collector—' she gestured toward several marble busts on the shelves in the studio that even to Hal's untrained eye looked particularly fine ‘—but I had no idea we were in financial difficulties.'

‘Man of business said nothing?' Hal asked. ‘When he called to read the will?'

Her eyebrows winged upward in surprise. ‘He hasn't called. Nor, to my knowledge, has there been a reading of the will. I suppose Everitt had one, but I know nothing about it.'

‘Who is solicitor?'

‘Mr Scarbridge.'

‘Eustace Scarbridge?' Hal echoed, astonished and taken aback.

‘Do you know him?' Elizabeth asked. ‘He is—was—a distant cousin of Everitt's. They attended Cambridge together. Though I don't believe Everitt consulted him very much.'

Unsure what to reply, Hal remained silent. Eustace Scarbridge. He barely refrained from groaning. So much for his happy vision of paying a single visit on the bewitching Elizabeth and being able to conclude the rest of his dealings about the Lowery estate with the deceased's solicitor.

Hal was not surprised Lowery hadn't consulted Scarbridge often. He would have to have been dicked in the nob to have confided anything of importance to a man Hal knew to be a gambler and a ne'er-do-well always looking for a high-stakes table at which to lose his blunt—if he wasn't throwing it away on some expensive barque of frailty. Hal hadn't even known the man was a solicitor, rather eloquent evidence in itself of the amount of time Scarbridge spent pursuing his supposed vocation.

Hal considered himself as reverent of the bonds of kinship as anyone, but he couldn't help damning Lowery for feeling so constrained by them that he'd not retained a solicitor worthy of the name.

‘Should Mr Scarbridge have called?' Elizabeth asked anxiously, recalling Hal from his consternation. ‘I'm sorry to keep asking questions, but as I suppose is quite obvious, I know nothing about finances. Or anything else useful,' she added with a twisted smile.

She looked weary and cast-down, almost as woebegone as her son. ‘You know the state of household accounts,' he replied, wishing to encourage her.

She brightened imperceptibly. ‘I was just looking over them. And I have paid the servants.'

‘Know balance? After expenditures for house, mourning clothes.'

Her momentary look of confidence faded. ‘I've only begun to look over the accounts and…I'm afraid I'm not very good with numbers. Besides, Sands, our butler, took care of ordering the wreaths and mourning dress. I already had some older gowns that would do, so I have no idea what all the necessities cost.'

‘Old gowns?' Hal echoed, astounded. His mama never missed an opportunity to expand her wardrobe. For the death of a close relative or acquaintance, she invariably purchased at least half a dozen new gowns, plus bonnets, scarves, stockings, pelisses and slippers to match. After all, she'd told him on the last occasion, styles had changed since she'd last worn mourning, and he couldn't expect her to appear in public shabbily dressed.

Mrs Lowery, however, looked distressed. ‘Are you thinking I should have purchased new ones? I assure you, I meant no disrespect to Everitt. Perhaps I should have made the effort, but I was already so beside myself, I couldn't bear the thought. Shopping is so taxing, all the material so lovely, with so many different textures, weaves and colours 'tis nearly impossible to choose.'

BOOK: A Most Unconventional Match
11.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Elisabeth Fairchild by Valentine's Change of Heart
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Low Life by Ryan David Jahn
Caressa's Knees by Annabel Joseph
Driftwood Cottage by Sherryl Woods
After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh