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Authors: A Suitable Wife

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BOOK: Louise M Gouge
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“You will arrange for me to meet Lady Beatrice as soon as possible.” Rumbold’s eyes held an evil glint. “If you refuse, I shall ruin you.”

How had this man come to have such power over him? But in truth, he did. Like a fool, Melton had gambled all of his father’s wealth away, and now he held only one card to trump this man: the ace of hearts. But would Beebe care enough to save him?

* * *

Mrs. Parton insisted that Lucy must occupy herself with charitable work until Lord Greystone decided what to do with her. With Beatrice’s help, she instructed the girl in how to make aprons for the St. Ann’s orphans. But as Lucy attempted to sew careful stitches, her hands shook, and she kept sticking herself with the needle. At last she stopped and stared toward the window of the small back parlor while drops of blood stained the pristine white linen. Praying that she was considering how to mend her ways, Beatrice did not try to converse with her.

Mrs. Parton’s house was never noisy, but today it was particularly quiet. Even servants tiptoed about as if they knew something was out of order. One or two cast surreptitious glances at Lucy, the maid who seemed privileged to keep company with their employer and her companion. But no one breeched decorum by daring to ask about it.

“Mrs. Parton.” Palmer stood in the parlor door, confusion filling his usually stoic face. “Lord Greystone’s Crawford is here to see you.”

The lady nodded grimly. Beatrice set aside her sewing. Lucy renewed her tears.

“Send him in, Palmer.” Mrs. Parton moved to the settee and took her place on the other side of Lucy.

Crawford entered, his bearing stiff and mechanical. “Begging your pardon, Mrs. Parton.”

“One moment, Crawford.” She waved her butler in. “Palmer, you must go out and close the door. Make certain no one eavesdrops on our conversation, even you.”

Palmer lifted his chin, offended. “Of course, madam.”

Once he closed the door, she waved Crawford to a chair across from the settee, dismissing his objection to sitting in her presence. “Do you have a message for us from Lord Greystone?”

His pale face even whiter around the edges, the old servant seemed to wilt a little. “Yes, madam. I am to take the girl back to Greystone Hall and keep her in confinement.”

At his reference to her as “the girl,” Lucy whimpered. “Grandfather, I—”

“Hush, girl.” His eyes blazed briefly before his facade fell back into place. “We are not to say anything to Lady Greystone for now, so if I may ask your indulgence?”

“Of course.” Mrs. Parton sighed, a sad sound that broke Beatrice’s heart. This usually merry lady was as devastated by Lucy’s crime as Beatrice. “We will not speak of it.”

He stood and whipped his hand in the air to order Lucy to follow.

“Wait, please.” Beatrice could not let them go this way. “Crawford, do you know what Lord Greystone plans to do?”

He winced slightly. “His lordship has retained the services of a Bow Street Runner. I expect him to send her to the magistrate for judgment.”

Beatrice shuddered. If Lord Greystone brought charges against Lucy, as he well had the right to do, the only future she could see for the girl was prison or transportation to Australia. Although she could not bring herself to pray for utter forgiveness without punishment, she could pray that the viscount would be merciful and not seek to have the girl hanged for her crime.

Chapter Twenty-One

B
linding rage filled Greystone as he flipped a coin to the boy tending his horse and leaped into the saddle. As much as he wanted to whip the gelding into a mind-clearing gallop, such an exercise would endanger the people crowding the streets. They were not at fault for his anger any more than they were at fault for their own wretched lives.

Why had he ever thought Melton would see reason and reform his evil ways? He was not Richard. He had no gift for converting sinners. He was Lord Greystone, the viscount, for goodness sake, with an entirely different set of responsibilities. Richard gave sermons in order to persuade people to godliness. Greystone gave orders and expected obedience.

Reaching a less populated avenue, he urged his horse to a trot, while a haunting suspicion crept into his mind. Did everyone in Melton’s family harbor his evil tendencies? Greystone had known Lady Beatrice for only a short time. Like a smitten schoolboy, he had fallen wildly in love with her outward beauty and graciousness. But were there hidden faults beneath that exquisite face, that flawless deportment? He had been in London long enough to see numerous aristocratic gentlemen assume that a lady’s outward appearance revealed the heart within. Once married they were tragically disappointed when their wives’ true natures revealed selfishness and excess. But how did a gentleman discover a lady’s worthiness before he became irrevocably tied to her? Even Mrs. Parton’s endorsement could not be trusted, for she always thought the best of everyone.

He knew he was being unfair. Lady Beatrice was not her brother. She had even endeavored to avoid Melton. But even if she was perfect in every way, she was still the man’s sister. Mother’s admonitions aside, Greystone had seen for himself how bad associations could hinder good works. That was why he had endeavored so strenuously not to surrender his heart to the lady. Now if he married her, Melton would use it to his advantage and wedge himself into every worthwhile project Greystone supported. As an earl his superior rank alone should grant him favor with certain powerful people, despite his debts being beyond reason. After all, the Prince Regent was terribly in debt and laughed the whole thing off as inconsequential.

One thing Greystone knew: God had called him to good works, especially in regard to unfortunate boys like Kit and Ben. But the Almighty had not spoken as forcefully to him about Lady Beatrice. Perhaps his heart had been shouting so loud that his mind could not hear the Lord. How would he ever know? Perhaps he should visit Richard, if he was still in town, and seek his advice.

Arriving at his town house, he could not keep his eyes from aiming at the residence next door, even as he hoped Lady Beatrice would not see him from one of the many windows. If he went to her now and told her about his visit to Melton, he would not be able to hide his rage and indignation. She would defend her brother. They would argue. All would come to an end. No, it was best for him to ponder the matter for a while, seek Richard’s advice and try to pray over the noise of his emotions.

In any event he still must deal with Lucy and figure out how to rescue two tiny lads. Greystone hoped Crawford had been able to fetch Lucy quietly without arousing Mother’s suspicions. He prayed Jeremy Slate had discovered where Kit and Ben had been taken. And perhaps he would learn where Warren had sold the necklace, if indeed he had. The man would be mad to keep it in his possession for long.

He hoped, prayed—but enough of that. With one last glance toward Mrs. Parton’s house, he strode up the steps into his own.

* * *

Beatrice turned away from her window, swallowing her disappointment. She had wanted to peek out from behind the curtain and wave to Lord Greystone, but after deciding it would not be proper, had remained hidden. Moreover he looked none too pleased as he surrendered his horse to the waiting groom. If all had gone well with Melly, surely he would have come here first. This did not bode well for their friendship. If he was angry with Melly, did Greystone think she would not support him? That she would choose her brother over the gentleman who had won her heart, as indeed he had? Now she could not even tell Mrs. Parton about their agreement, which had caused her such joy only yesterday and now burned in her heart like a coal in the hearth.

But perhaps this was best. Lord Greystone had many responsibilities, not the least of which was dealing with Lucy and finding the lost boys. She would wait patiently for his explanation.

But an inner voice protested that he should have come to see her. After their heartfelt conversation, it seemed somehow inauspicious for their future that Lord Greystone would not seek her help in sorting out whatever had happened with Melly, just as he had trusted her in the matter of Lucy.

* * *

In the entryway Greystone tossed his riding gloves on a side table before the footman could reach for them. He strode toward the staircase, determined to avoid Mother in the event that she was in the drawing room.

“My lord,” the footman called after him.

Greystone spun around, ready to shut the man up. But once again, this person was not at fault for his difficulties. “Yes, Robert.”

The man’s posture was impeccable, something Greystone had never noticed before.

“Lord Winston awaits you in the drawing room, milord.”

“Winston. What the deuce does he want?” He cringed at his own words. Mother never approved of what she called
veiled swearing.
“Never mind. I will see him.” He started toward the closed double doors of the drawing room, then paused. “Where is the viscountess?”

“Out, milord.” At Greystone’s questioning expression, he added, “With Mr. Grenville.”

“One of my brothers?”

“No, sir. The older Mr. Grenville.”

Curious. Mother had been out with Uncle Grenville three of the past nine days. But he would have to address that issue later. He strode across the wide entryway, his heels clacking on the finely polished marble tiles as a sense of foreboding lurched into his belly. What could Winston possibly want?

The baron stood in front of the hearth studying the painting above it, a massive work of art that only slightly enhanced the beauty of Greystone Hall.

“An exquisite painting.” Winston did not turn to face Greystone. “A charming country manor house.”

“Hmm. Come to admire the artwork, I see.” Greystone had a twinge of guilt over his rudeness, but he could not help himself. “Shall I give you the tour?”

Now the baron turned and gave him a sardonic grin. “And then perhaps I can return the favor and give you a tour of my home in Grosvenor Square.”

“Of course.”
Easy, Greystone. Keep a civil tongue.

“My lord.” Robert stood in the doorway. “Shall I bring tea?”

Crawford would have done so without asking.

“Yes, of course.” Greystone eyed his guest. “You will take tea, will you not?”

“Of course.”

The baron’s grin was beginning to annoy him. Might as well get this over, whatever
this
was. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“You may not think it a pleasure when you hear me.” Winston frowned and shook his head. “That was a bad beginning. Forgive me.”

“Of course.” Unlike Melton, Greystone would readily grant forgiveness to his guest. “Proceed.”

“Very well. I will be blunt. I am not unlike any other peer of our age, and the Season has come for me to choose a wife.” He coughed softly into his hand, no doubt to give himself time to think. “I flatter myself that I am not without the attributes necessary to attract a young lady with her own distinctions.”

Greystone wanted to send the baron packing so he could get on with his urgent matters, but Winston was, after all, a decent gentleman, if a bit priggish. Pompous, actually.

“How may I assist you in this, sir? Ah, never mind. I know exactly where to send you. Lady Grandly has two fine daughters with considerable dowries—”

Winston shrugged. “That is but a small consideration, one I would be willing to entirely dispense with for the right lady of good social rank.” As if unaware of his actions, he looked in the direction of Mrs. Parton’s house. Or so it seemed to Greystone. “Look here, Greystone, I will be blunt. Have you offered for Lady Beatrice?”

Greystone had to admire his candor. More could get done in this world if people would simply speak their minds. At odds with that thought, he himself could not so much as answer the baron honestly. No, he had not offered for Lady Beatrice. Yes, he did love her. But after today’s interview with Melton, could he bring himself to marry the earl’s sister and be forever tied to him? That question hung over him, one minute a ray of sunshine, the next Damocles’ sword. But he could hardly refuse to answer the baron. And he certainly would not step aside for the gentleman. Not yet.

A reprieve came in the form of Robert bringing the tea tray. “Begging your pardon, my lord, but the Bow Street Runner has returned.”

Greystone’s heart lurched. “Send him in, Robert. Will you excuse me, Winston?”

“A Bow Street Runner?” Winston’s eyebrows arched, and his smirk disappeared, replaced by interest. “Having an adventure, Greystone?”

Before he could answer, Jeremy Slate strode into the room, his ruddy face beaming with promise. “Good afternoon, Lord Greystone.” He spied Winston and stopped. “My lord?”

Greystone studied Winston briefly. If nothing else, the baron was discreet, and it was possible he could offer some advice regarding this situation. “He’s all right, Slate.” The remark earned him an appreciative nod from Winston. “What did you learn?”

“Well, sir, I have it on good authority that the lads are with their old master, all right, but he ain’t where he used to be, and he ain’t a sweep no more.”

A cold anger now gripped Greystone. The chimney sweep had not been his usual man, which meant someone had let the scoundrel into his house, undoubtedly to search for valuables to steal. Warren the footman, of course. But how had that one passed Crawford’s careful examination? Even with Lucy’s recommendation, the old butler should have seen what kind of man he was. “Where is this former sweep?”

“In a tavern down by the river that caters to his sort. He’s buying drinks for everybody who comes in, saying he’s got two boys for sale and bragging about how he put one over on a lord.” Slate tapped the side of his nose in a knowing gesture, and his dark eyes gleamed. “What he don’t know is that Warren Snead’s been caught by my colleague and carted off to the magistrate.”

“So they were in collusion.” Greystone felt sick at the thought of him selling the boys for who knew what sort of labor. Nonetheless he began to hope they could be rescued. “And the viscountess’s necklace?”

“That’s how we got ’im in the first place. Snead sold it to an honest man, who knew something wasn’t right. He bought it with a hundred pounds of his own money, then brung it to the magistrate.” One of Slate’s eyebrows went up, the other went down, and he dipped his chin. “If you get my meaning, my lord.”

“A hundred pounds? Why, it’s worth ten thousand.” The revelation was so astounding, Greystone could hardly maintain his dignity. “Of course I shall repay him and add a handsome reward.”

Slate smiled his approval, and in this significant moment, Greystone took no offense at his insolence. “And where is the necklace?”

Grinning broadly, Slate reached into his pocket and drew out a small cloth-covered bundle. He unfolded the black material to reveal the ruby necklace in all its glory. “’Tis all in one piece, as best I can tell, my lord.”

Overwhelming relief flooded Greystone. He gently took the jewels in hand as if they might break, studying them carefully. “Yes, completely undamaged. Indeed the man will receive a handsome reward.”

“You know, Greystone,” Winston said. “We should go straightaway to the tavern and nab the other scoundrel.”

“We?” Greystone stared at the baron. He had only a vague idea of what was going on, yet he appeared as eager to join them as a hound before the hunt.

“I don’t know, my lord.” Slate scratched his chin. “’Tis not a place for quality to venture, if you get my meaning.” He repeated his favorite catchphrase. “Maybe I should fetch another Runner or two.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I am going.” The boys would be frightened enough without having strangers grab them from their kidnapper. Greystone tilted his head toward Winston, wordlessly asking Slate’s counsel.

“Well, my lord, if you insist.” He clicked his tongue. “Three’s better than two.” He seemed about to nudge Greystone, then wisely changed his mind.

Greystone again studied the baron. He possessed a sturdy frame and, if Greystone’s memory served him, had boxed at Oxford, both of which would recommend him for the task. In the absence of his two brothers, perhaps this fellow would make the perfect accomplice. “Very well. Let us make haste.”

“One thing, my lord.” Slate pointed to Greystone’s blue jacket. “You’d best put on some plainer clothes, and black like this gentleman’s, so you won’t stand out as the night draws on.”

“Easily done.” He had noticed the baron’s preference for dark clothing. Perhaps with that blond hair, which made him appear younger than his five and twenty years, he hoped to present a more mature, even severe appearance. Perhaps that accounted for his pomposity, as well.

Eager to change, Greystone hastened upstairs to his bedchamber and, with Gilly’s help, hid the necklace deep within a bureau. Mother would require an explanation, but that would have to wait until later.

In addition to his advice about clothing, Slate said they must pack weapons, so he located pistols, knives and swords in the old armory room. Within the hour they stood at the front door prepared to leave, when Crawford approached and took Greystone aside.

“My lord, I have some apprehension about keeping my granddaughter—” he choked on the word, something he never did “—about keeping Lucy confined in the nursery any longer. It has already ignited gossip among the staff, and I fear it will soon reach Lady Greystone’s ears.”

Anxious to be on his way, Greystone nevertheless summoned patience to deal with this faithful old servant. And of course Mother must not learn of Lucy’s crime until he decided what to do with her. Indeed she must be judged. His possession of the necklace did not diminish the girl’s part in the affair. “What do you propose?”

BOOK: Louise M Gouge
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