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Authors: Wilma Counts

An Earl Like No Other

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AN EARL LIKE NO OTHER

She was, of course, not wearing that infernal mobcap at this hour. “Your hair—” He reached to touch it, then thought better of doing so and dropped his hand.

She gave a nervous laugh and swiped a hand over her head and along her neck. His gaze followed her hand.

“Luckily it will grow back,” she said. “At least I needn't plait it every night now.”

“A silver lining behind every cloud, eh?”

She shrugged, but made no move to end the encounter. Wanting to prolong it, he asked, “And your hands? Are they healed now?”

“Nearly.” She held them out and turned them this way and that. “Some redness. I wear gloves for most tasks.”

“Allow me.” He took her hands gently in his own and steered her across the threshold toward the better light on her nightstand. “They seem to have healed nicely. With luck, there will be little scarring.”

He raised his gaze to hers and seeing a corresponding degree of sheer need in her eyes, he gave up control, put his arms around her, and lowered his mouth to hers . . .

An Earl Like No Other
WILMA COUNTS

eKENSINGTON BOOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
www.kensingtonbooks.com

All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

TO
LONE MOUNTAIN WRITERS
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
for always helping me
make it better.

CHAPTER 1

May, 1815

 

M
r. Thomas Logan wore a battered top hat and other remnants of the conservative, plain dress of his position as a London solicitor. His clothing, appropriate for a very junior associate in a large law firm in that great European city, was decidedly out of place in the frontier town of St. Joseph in the Louisiana Territory of the New World. Logan's wardrobe had taken a beating during a journey of several months' duration to this center of the fur trade. In the latter stages of his trip, he had been acutely aware of the sniggers of white men and open curiosity of Indians he encountered.

St. Joseph, a port on the Missouri River, was crowded now with mountain men gathered to sell the pelts they had accumulated over the winter. He recognized accents from Europe—French, German, and Spanish. Who would have thought so many men from civilized parts of the world would have chosen this life? Admittedly, he used the term
civilized
rather loosely, for he possessed the true Londoner's sense of superiority. He could not distinguish either languages or dress of the natives, whom he thought of with a shudder as mere savages. He quelled these thoughts as he had done for some weeks now. Thomas Logan was a man on a mission. Mentally bracing himself, he went about his task of locating a fur trapper named Jeremy Michael Chilton.

Logan's ordeal had included a two-month ocean voyage, then another two months trekking across nearly half of the North American continent by stagecoach, horseback, riverboat, canoe, and now horseback again. Having finally arrived in St. Joseph, he found locating his quarry easier than he had anticipated. The town was a frontier outpost, but saloons, brothels, and mercantile stores abounded to serve fur traders.

“Chilton? Yeah, I know him,” a grizzled, unkempt man said in the fourth or fifth establishment Logan visited. “He's with a tribe of Arapahos 'bout a mile and a half north of here.”

“Arap . . . uh—
what
?”

“Arapahos. Plains Injuns.”

“I see . . .” Logan did not see at all.

“We'll find 'im fer ya, Mr. Logan.”

This assurance came from Bill Hansen, one of the five experienced mountain men Logan had hired in Kentucky to guide him into the deeper wilderness. At first, his new comrades had been wary and faintly contemptuous of the fastidious Londoner. Gradually, though, his perseverance in the face of the hardships of the trail had won them over. He supposed the turning point had come as he took a dunking when a canoe capsized. He had also endured hours and hours on horseback. No London cabs in the wilderness, he reminded himself.

“Lead on then, Mr. Hansen.”

Half an hour later, they entered an Indian camp full of tepees, women bending over cook fires, and men idling in the late afternoon. The smell of wood smoke blended with that of roasting meat; adults called out to each other or to reprimand noisy children. Logan could see little to distinguish this from any of the other heathen encampments he'd seen. His group's horses and pack animals were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of scantily clad brown-skinned children who giggled and pointed. “Impolite, uncouth little monsters,” Logan muttered to himself. Hansen asked directions in a guttural native language and they were pointed toward the edge of the camp. Logan's anticipation rose. Was it possible that he at long last could discharge the duty that had brought him so far?

Among the tepees Logan spotted a proper English tent such as a soldier might have used on the Iberian Peninsula—indeed, it was not unlike Logan's own traveling accommodation.
Well, perhaps the man has not gone entirely native,
he thought.

As they neared the tent, a tall man, probably roused by the mayhem in the wake of Logan's arrival, emerged and pinned up the opening flap. Logan noted dark brown hair and blue eyes. Hansen and Logan dismounted and pushed forward as others of their party held back with the animals and packs.

“Are you Chilton?” Hansen asked.

“I am.”

“This here's Mr. Logan. He's done come all the way from England lookin' fer you.” Pride and amusement showed in Hansen's voice as he gestured toward his smaller companion, who maintained the aura—if not the semblance—of a proper English gentleman. Logan stepped aside, clutching a leather attaché packet, and sought to ignore several mongrel dogs sniffing and growling at his feet.

“Thank you, Mr. Hansen,” Logan said. “Perhaps you and the others could set up our camp while I convey the message I came to deliver.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Logan.”

Logan lifted his battered hat and tried to maintain his dignity as he shook a foot at a particularly impolite dog. He bowed. “I am happy to find you at last, my lord.”

The tall man smiled, apparently amused at this incongruous scene. “I'm afraid you miscall me, sir. It's just ‘Chilton' here.”

“Ah, but in England, my lord, you are now the Earl of Kenrick.”

Chilton drew in a long breath. Color drained from his face. He looked as though someone had landed a solid punch to his midsection. “I'm
what
? You can't be serious. My father? My brothers—Charles, Edgar?”

“Deceased, I am sad to say.” Logan's tone was somber. “Your brothers drowned in a boating accident in the Irish Sea. Your father succumbed to complications from illness—his liver, you know.”

“When?”

“Your brothers a year ago and your father some three months later.”

Chilton shook his head, clearly overwhelmed. His expression was grim, but color was returning to his face.

“I'm sorry, my lord. I'm sure this news comes as a shock.”

“Indeed it does.” Chilton's voice caught. “All this time I've thought of them as alive and well and . . .”

“Your older brothers were lost at sea, but your father was laid to rest in Kenrick chapel,” Logan said gently.

“Others of my family? I've been away for nearly ten years and have had only a few letters.”

“They are well. Your stepmother remained in London after your father's death. His sister, Lady Elinor, chooses to remain at Kenrick. You surely know your sister Margaret married the Honorable William Talbot six years ago.”

Chilton nodded and Logan went on. “She has twin sons and a daughter, so you're an uncle, my lord.”

Chilton grinned. “A girl as well, eh? I knew of the boys. And Bobby?”

“Your younger brother, Robert, was still in Belgium when I left London.”

“He is still in harm's way, then,” Chilton said. “Even here we heard of Napoleon's escape in March.” He looked off into the blue sky, his gaze focused on something within. “Hard to think of Bobby as a seasoned soldier. He was only sixteen when I left. My father—Charles—Edgar . . .” He shook his head again.

Logan shifted from one foot to another. “Is there some place we can talk, my lord?”

“Of course.”

With a gesture, Chilton invited him into the tent and let the flap down. Soon they were seated on what Logan thought of as very civilized camp stools. Logan, holding his attaché case primly on his lap, started to speak again in a formal tone. “I represent the Phillips law firm handling Kenrick business affairs. When your brothers drowned, your father was most anxious to have you return to England. When we received no response to our letters, Mr. Phillips prevailed upon me to make this journey. That would be the younger Mr. Phillips—Mr. Walter Phillips, that is. His father passed on in 1812.”

“I know Wally very well. So he's in charge now, eh?”

“Yes, my lord. Mr. Walter instructed me to find you—no matter how long it took. It has been a most interesting adventure, I must say.”

Chilton gave him what seemed to be a sympathetic smile.

“I am pleased to have found you, my lord,” the lawyer said, drawing some papers from his packet.

Before he could continue, however, the tent flap whooshed open and a child of perhaps four years bounced in, uttering something in the heathen language and sounding highly excited. The child, who appeared to be female, ran to Chilton and clutched at his knee.

Chilton put a hand on her shoulder and turned her toward Logan. “Cassie, you are being rude to a guest.” He looked at Logan. “My daughter, Cassie—that is, Cassandra Margaret.”

The child stamped her foot. “Little Willow, Papa.”

“Ah, yes. Also known as Little Willow.”

“Your daughter?” Logan murmured. The London man was shocked as he examined the child more closely. No gentleman of his acquaintance would parade his by-blow quite so blatantly. The little girl was a comely creature, her hair in two long shiny black plaits; she wore a buckskin dress and a beaded headband. She glanced up shyly and Logan looked into very clear, very intelligent, very blue eyes.

“Greet the gentleman properly, Poppet—and in English,” Chilton said with a light push at her back.

“How . . . do?” She bent her knees in a shy curtsy, then hugged herself closer to her father, but never took her eyes from the stranger.

“I—I am pleased to meet you, my—uh—lady,” Logan managed, pleased with himself at having controlled his shock—even to the point of according the child a title he was not at all sure was rightfully hers.

Chilton gave the little girl a gentle shove. “You run out and play now, Cassie. And tell Running Fox I said to behave himself.”

She skipped away and Chilton met the lawyer's gaze directly, but with a hint of defiance.

“H—her mother?” Logan asked, unable to contain his curiosity.

“Dead,” the new Lord Kenrick said flatly. “My wife, Leah—or Willow—died giving birth to our daughter.”

“Y—your wife? But she was . . . she was—”

“Half Arapaho. My wife's mother is white—lives in St. Louis. And Willow
was
my wife. First by tribal ceremony and then by a Christian ceremony in St. Louis where the marriage was registered. So, yes, it appears that my daughter is, as you say,
Lady
Cassandra Margaret.”

“Y—yes, my lord.” Logan digested this information, then asked, “Are there—uh . . . any others?”

Chilton chuckled, apparently amused at Logan's discomfort. “No. Only Cassie. Believe me, she's enough.”

“Yes, my lord.” Logan sat even straighter and began to shuffle through his papers. “As your brothers left no legal heirs, you, my lord, became heir to the earldom when they died. As I said, we tried to contact you then.”

“Communication is no easy matter in the wilderness, Mr. Logan.”

“You have the right of it there, my lord,” Logan said ruefully, then he continued. “In any event, when your father too left us, it became crucial that we locate you, for you, my lord, are now the Earl of Kenrick, and there are certain matters of a rather urgent nature.”

“I shouldn't think there's much left of the Kenrick earldom,” Chilton observed. “Is there even enough to merit the name?”

“Well, yes. A good deal of movable property has been sold off—paintings and some other art pieces, many of the horses, a carriage or two. The real estate, no longer entailed, as you know, has been heavily mortgaged.”

“I surmised as much. The process started long before I left England.”

“The elder Mr. Phillips had more or less given up on the matter,” Logan explained, “but Mr. Walter thinks that, with proper management, the earldom might thrive again. To that end, he secured extensions on the loans.”

“Wally always was an optimist.”

Logan smiled politely. “He seems confident that you will agree to take on the task of saving Kenrick.”

 

Jeremy Chilton, new Earl of Kenrick, saw Mr. Logan settled into the camp Hansen set up, and he agreed to Cassie's urgent pleas that she be allowed to spend the night with her cousins, Running Fox and his sister Butterfly. Their mother had been a half-sister to Cassie's mother. Finally, he had time to consider the full impact of the lawyer's message.

As a third son, Jeremy had never entertained any notion of inheriting the title. Nor had he harbored any envy or regret that there were two brothers in front of him. Early on he had faced several important facts: his father's profligate habits were depleting an already floundering earldom; his older brothers were likely to finish it off; and there was nothing—absolutely nothing—a third son could do about it. Not only would there be no inheritance for him from Kenrick, but there was no rich relative, no fairy godmother lurking in the wings. He would be on his own, a fate that was often the lot of younger sons.

As a boy he had dreamed of running away to sea to make his fortune as a pirate. As an adolescent, his ambitions were nobler: He would join the army and fight the Corsican monster trying to subdue all of Europe. In the end, he had been persuaded by a fellow Trinity College student—another impoverished younger son—to go adventuring in the New World. Jeremy had lost track of Walthorp, who had lasted in the wilderness only one year, then taken a desk job with Astor's American Fur Company in New York. Jeremy, however, had taken to the rough frontier life, though initially he thought of it as a temporary sojourn. He would one day take up a more settled way of life, but probably in America rather than England. Before settling down, though, he must add to his savings in the St. Louis bank with another year or two out here in the fur trade.

Now—suddenly—he was no longer “just Chilton” but Earl of Kenrick! He could stay where he was—let those creditors collect on the debts his father had amassed. Let an empty title eventually fall where it would—perhaps to his younger brother Robert. Let the tenant farmers, mill workers, and others fend for themselves. They would probably have had to do so anyway if either Charles or Edgar had inherited.

Memory conjured up faces from the past: A stable hand who taught him how to ride. Farmers who taught him the value and rewards of hard work. A gamekeeper who shared secrets of nature with a lonely boy. The vicar who instilled a love of Homer and Marcus Aurelius. Not just faces. People—families—all dependent on the fate of the Kenrick earldom.

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