Read The Earl's Revenge Online
Authors: Allison Lane
Tags: #Regency Romance
“What do you mean, she isn’t here!” Lord Grimfield slammed both fists onto the breakfast table, bouncing two knives onto the floor. “We leave in two hours.”
“I’m sure … I mean … I d-don’t know … my palpitations … vinaigrette!” His gray-haired aunt squeaked and stammered until Grimfield’s red face turned purple. “There is n-no one in her room,” she finally managed through chattering teeth as a footman waved smelling salts under her nose.
“Nonsense!” He glared at the rigidly composed butler. “Summon my daughter immediately.”
Miss Thompson slumped further into her chair and grasped the vinaigrette for herself, inhaling deeply.
Fifteen furiously silent minutes later, the butler returned. “Miss Mary is not in the house.”
Lord Grimfield loomed over his hapless aunt. “What kind of establishment do you run that you can misplace an innocent girl?”
“P-perhaps Mary just stepped out for a b-breath of air,” she suggested, paling before his black glare. The vinaigrette waved faster.
“Her maid is also missing,” reported the butler, not mentioning that the front door had been unlocked when he arose that morning. Miss Mary was sweet and thoughtful – a favorite among the servants. Lord Grimfield, on the other hand, was a pompous bore who had complained unceasingly since his arrival the previous afternoon.
“I want a thorough search from attic to cellar,” ordered his lordship.
The house was not large; the search took only half an hour. Another hour turned up no one in the neighborhood who admitted seeing either Miss Mary or her maid.
“What are we to do?” moaned Miss Thompson, wringing her hands between sips of weak tea.
“Imbecile!” snapped Lord Grimfield. “I should have known better than to trust my daughter to the care of a stupid woman. You are too incompetent to look after yourself, let alone a seventeen-year-old girl. What was my father about to let you live in London alone? The man should have been locked in Bedlam.”
“How can you t-talk about dear Arnold that way?” she wailed. “My b-brother had nothing to say about my care. I lived with my aunt, God rest her soul.”
“God won’t. She was a cursed sinner, wasting her life on immoral frivolity and ignoring her responsibilities. And you are no better! Why did I not insist on my sister’s escort? She is the only reasonable female I have ever met!”
“Fanny would have been a most unsuitable chaperon!” Miss Thompson stormed, his implacable antagonism triggering her temper. “She is as ignorant of town as you. Poor Mary was as gauche and untutored a girl as I have ever seen, lacking even the rudiments of female accomplishments. I am amazed she lasted the month without creating a scandal. She hasn’t the slightest idea how to go on in society, as must be obvious from this current start. Oh, how are we to find her?”
“We aren’t,” he announced. “She has abandoned her duty, repudiating both family and God. I want nothing more to do with her.”
“B-but how do you know she left of her own free will? There was no note, and all her p-possessions remain upstairs.”
“You are hysterical to suggest anything so ridiculous. Who could want so disobedient a chit?” He scribbled a message and summoned a footman. “Deliver this to Bridgeport House. It is now their problem. I refuse to be tarnished by the girl’s sins.”
“Sins?” squeaked Miss Thompson. “How dare you! I have never seen a more pious young lady.”
“Honor thy father,”
he quoted grimly. “One of the ten commandments.
Children, obey your parents—
That exhortation appears more than once. She will fry for all eternity. As for you, Aunt Mabel, you should consider
blessed are the meek
. Your unholy tendency to criticize your betters and argue with your superiors will guarantee that you spend the hereafter with my former daughter.” With that, he called for his luggage. In half an hour, he was gone.
* * * *
Viscount Staynes kept an expression of expectant pleasure on his face with considerable effort. He had no interest in the current proceedings, wanting nothing more than to attend the morning’s auction at Tattersall’s.
This is your duty
, he reminded himself. Thinking of other activities was pointless, for it only increased his annoyance. Amusement flickered in his eyes when he remembered the surprise that awaited his mother, but it quickly passed.
Where was the stupid chit? He had heard that it was fashionable to be late for one’s wedding, but Miss Thompson was not a fashionable female. And ten minutes was beyond enough. He tried to deflect his growing irritation by reviewing his plans for the future.
It didn’t help.
The voices behind him buzzed louder as speculation intensified. Bishop Ramsey clicked open his watch. A quarter past eleven. Staynes grimaced.
Sudden silence assaulted his ears. The rustle of five hundred people shifting in their seats echoed from the vaulted roof. He produced a smile for his bride and turned, but saw only growing fury in his mother’s eyes and trepidation in his father’s that changed to stark terror as a Bridgeport footman hurried up the aisle, a folded piece of paper clutched in one hand. The bishop glanced at the note, then passed it to Staynes.
A giant fist landed in his stomach, driving all the air from his lungs. His eyes hardened into green ice, an angry flush galloping up his face to merge with his russet hair. By God, she would pay for this!
Ignoring even his best friend, he strode out a side entrance.
“There will be no wedding today,” announced the bishop. Abandoning his dignity, he beat a hasty retreat lest the Countess of Bridgeport vent her considerable spleen on his ears.
Dear Mr. Thornton,
Regrettably, Mr. Beringer will be unable to accept your commission as he died Thursday last. Enclosed herewith are all materials belonging to you that were in the possession of my client at the time of his demise.
Andrew Holyoke, solicitor
“Hell and damnation!” muttered Thornton, glaring at the letter clenched in his left hand. It was dated two months earlier. Why had it not been forwarded until now?
He strode furiously about the room, kicking aside a footstool with such force that it smashed into the wall. His publisher had been unenthusiastic about this project from the beginning, citing excessive costs and a limited market. A conservative who abhorred risk-taking, the man would undoubtedly pounce on this disaster as an excuse to proceed in his own way.
But the attached note removed that fear, not that it improved his temper any. Murray declared that Mr. Beringer’s assistant, Mr. M. E. Merriweather, was equally talented, as the enclosed sketches would prove.
A louder and more graphic string of curses bounced off the library walls. Damned officious toad! Murray must have known of this problem for weeks. What gave him the right to consult another artist without even discussing it? And an unknown at that!
Unfortunately, Thornton knew the answer. That was the publisher’s business. But Murray’s timing for finally revealing Beringer’s death was execrable. He could not possibly visit the man for at least two days. Thornton frowned at the packet that had accompanied the letters. Dared he trust an illustrator he had never heard of? This was the culmination of a dream he had nourished for years. Failure was unthinkable.
He threaded long, slender fingers through his hair, disturbing the artfully arranged curls. Writing was an essential part of his life. Starting while still in school, he had published articles of many types under a variety of names, but his greatest love was poetry. And he was good at it, though stating that fact sounded odiously conceited. His first book of verse had been acclaimed three years before. The second had enjoyed even more success, especially among the members of London society, which was why Murray had agreed to his ideas for the third.
Several years earlier Thornton had come across a folio of lavishly illustrated verses by Blake, titled
Songs of Innocence and Experience
. Blake was an artist as well as a poet and had done everything himself, including inventing an illuminated printing process that quickly etched both the illustrations and the text on a single plate, thus reducing the cost of printing. Very few people knew of his efforts, however, for the meticulously hand-tinted folio had been privately published twenty years earlier. Ruinously expensive, it had found a limited market. And not just because of the cost. While Blake had long made his living as an illustrator, his literary work had been little known, his verse only now being recognized. But current volumes lacked illustrations.
Though Blake’s poetry was very different from Thornton’s, the existence of his folio had provided the later poet food for thought. His own verse, which extolled the power and majesty of natural forces, was ideally suited to visual imagery. Suppose he published an illustrated version for sale to the upper reaches of society. It would not replace the regular volume, which would be priced to sell to a broader audience, but the special edition would provide an extra cachet lacking in the works of other writers.
Without resorting to arrogance, he believed that his name was sufficiently respected to make such a venture profitable despite its high production costs. He would avoid the mistake of using color, of course. That could be added if a demand arose for prints of individual pages.
He had carefully honed the idea, working out details and devising rebuttals for the anticipated objections. When his second volume achieved such success, he had broached the subject to Murray.
Thornton was even more adamant about the project now, for Byron had just burst into fame.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
, with its worldly and self-destructive hero, was very different from his own work – indeed more than a little autobiographical if rumor was correct – but Thornton needed to return the public’s attention to himself.
Laying the letters on his desk, he sighed in frustration. Beringer had been a lauded illustrator for many years and would have made a perfect collaborator. But the man was now dead. Could anyone really expect an unknown assistant to produce the quality he demanded? Would the special volume sell without the attraction of an established artist?
Reluctantly, he opened the package and pulled out two pieces of parchment, resigned to abandoning his grandiose ideas.
Five minutes later he was staring in wonder. Murray was right. It would do. It would more than do. Merriweather was a genius. This was even better than he had envisioned. It was better than what Blake had achieved, the artwork enhancing the verse by providing an imaginative extension of his words, finding nuances in his ideas that he had not thought of himself – almost as if the artist had crawled inside his head. It was amazing.
Rapidly scribbling a note of acceptance, he summoned his secretary. “Take this to Murray, Cramer. You may be cautiously enthusiastic.” He slid the illustrations across his desktop.
“Exquisite,” agreed Cramer.
“While you are out, you can deliver these.” He pulled two packages from a drawer. The one addressed to the
contained Mr. Germain’s analysis of the effect on the French army in Spain of Wellington’s recent victory at Ciudad Rodrigo. The other, to
Life in London
, was Mr. Anstey’s satirical tale detailing the latest adventures of that fictional dandy, Sir Godfrey Fishface. “By the way, my appreciation of Merriweather is tempered by irritation at Murray’s high-handedness as shown by the long delay in bringing this problem to my attention.”
“And perhaps you could spend the rest of the day finishing that research we discussed last week.”
The secretary grimaced at his employer’s familiar impatience and departed.
Examining the sketches one last time, the poet locked them securely in his desk, not wanting curious maids to see them. Or even the butler. Only Cramer was privy to his literary life.
Whistling a jaunty tune, he smoothed his hair, resumed his public identity, and headed for Jackson’s. He had a full day planned.
* * * *
“Beautiful hit!” Harold Parrish pounded the Earl of Bridgeport enthusiastically on the shoulder. “Only you could land a facer on Jackson himself.”
“Don’t be absurd,” scoffed the earl. “And what has prompted this sudden burst of conviviality?” His cousin Harold had never been so affable in all his three-and-thirty years.
“Can’t a fellow congratulate you without prompting a miff?”
“Of course. I accept your good humor and your accolades, and will stifle this nagging voice that claims you are trying to turn me up sweet.” He moved away to converse with the other spectators who had crowded into the largest of the pugilist’s sparring rooms. Jackson’s practice of personally going a few rounds with the best of his pupils kept the rest eagerly returning for instruction.