“The matchmakers call you the perfect gentleman,” Sycamore Dorning said. “Now that Tresham has succumbed to a permanent case of marital bliss, the hopefuls turn their lonely gazes to you. I’d envy you, except I know you long for the company of your sheep.”
Grey Birch Dorning, Earl of Casriel, pretended to study his program. “Sycamore, you will please keep your ribald innuendo out of polite surrounds.”
Sycamore sent a friendly nod to the Misses Arbuckles, twin sisters who looked Grey over as if he might be the answer to a troubling riddle known only to unmarried young ladies.
“I was in complete earnest about the sheep,” Sycamore replied. “You name them, you know their birthdays. I daresay you don’t know mine.”
“May the fourteenth. I recall the occasion vividly. Papa was so relieved you weren’t a girl, he became inebriated. One of the few times I knew him to over-imbibe.”
Sycamore was nonetheless correct in a general sense. Grey longed to be home in Dorset, where the greenery went on forever, the air was redolent of rural fragrances, and the quiet was profound. Mayfair by contrast was a hell of muslin, eau de desperation, coal smoke, and violins. And yet, in hell Grey would bide until an heiress or wealthy widow looked with favor upon his suit.
“Papa was drunk on botany,” Sycamore said, “just as Will revels in his mutts. I see Miss Hamilton is to perform tonight. Another visit to the punchbowl becomes imperative.”
Of all the Dorning brothers—who numbered seven—Sycamore had the most fondness for the ladies.
“If you invite the Arbuckles to sit with us,” Grey muttered behind his program, “I will disown you.”
“Disowning a sibling who is attempting to mend his ways is frowned upon in good society. I’m safe from banishment until you find your countess.”
From the far side of the room, Grey heard familiar laughter—Beatitude, Countess of Canmore, was among the guests. She brought graciousness with her everywhere, also charm and startlingly frank blue eyes. Grey kept his gaze elsewhere, though ignoring her ladyship was like ignoring a beautiful sunset: nearly impossible and inherently foolish, for lovely sunsets were too transitory to be taken for granted.
Sycamore left his program on his chair. “You need a hobby other than counting sheep, Casriel. Old age is making you disagreeable. Shall I bring you a glass of punch?”
“I can fetch my own.” Grey rose, his height, as always, making him feel as conspicuous as a bull among spring lambs.
Cam attempted to precede him to the punchbowl, like an outrider who clears the road of potential ambushes, which would not do. Sycamore had matured significantly in the past year—meaning he was no longer an unrelenting disgrace—but Grey was still the oldest sibling, still the head of the family. He maneuvered himself ahead of his baby brother and offered the Arbuckles a nod.
“Now you’ve done it,” Cam said. “I’m not to invite the twins to sit with us, but you just sent them an engraved, perfumed invitation.”
“I merely acknowledged them, as manners require a gentleman to do.”
“When you are merely an earl, merely the owner of thousands of beautiful acres, and merely in need of a bride, you show your manners at peril to your bachelorhood. Tresham has arrived. I must speak to him on a matter of some urgency. Best of luck, and find us a wealthy countess who can at least make you smile.” Cam patted Grey’s shoulder and wound away between chairs, debutantes, and matchmakers.
Find us a wealthy countess. Precisely. That project was off to a slow start. Grey still had a few weeks before the Season ended and the house parties began, but the game became more complicated then, and nothing would keep him away from Dorset as harvest approached.
“Punch, my lord?” a liveried footman asked when Grey had moved to the head of the line.
“Half a glass, please.”
“Does my lord enjoy a sprig of lavender or mint with his beverage? Perhaps a dash of cinnamon?”
My lord enjoyed summer ale, fresh bread, and creamy butter from his own dairy, with his own roasted beef and his own baked potatoes. “Plain will do, thank you.”
“I’ll have the same. Half a glass, plain.” The countess smiled at the footman. “And perhaps you know where I might find a pitcher of water?”
The footman glanced around as he ladled out her ladyship’s drink from the smaller bowl. “If you ask Harry there by the door, he’ll point you in the direction of the billiards room. Should be water on the sideboard.”
The Arbuckles were bearing down on the punchbowl with the focus of raptors on the wing. From across the room, their progress was being remarked by Miss Pamela Threadlebaum, who had yet to secure a match despite her fortune. Lady Antonia Mainwaring, rumored to be fabulously wealthy though a confirmed bluestocking, had apparently developed a sudden thirst as well.
“Perhaps your lordship would like to help me find the billiards room?” Lady Canmore asked.
The countess was not wealthy, not flirtatious, not longing to acquire a title. She was, in fact, the very last woman with whom Grey should spend his evening.
“A gentleman never knowingly leaves a lady without an escort,” he said, taking the second glass from the footman. “Let’s away, shall we?”
She slipped a gloved hand around his arm, nothing possessive in her touch—damn the luck—and made a decorous progress with him toward the door.
* * *
Beatitude, Countess of Canmore, had made her peace with fate’s cruelties five years ago. A widow made her peace because her alternatives—foolishness, the poppy’s pathetic oblivion, unrelenting grief or worse—were all defeat of one sort, and Beatitude believed in neither defeat nor surrender.
Neither did she believe in unproductive suffering, which made this stolen moment with Lord Casriel difficult to justify.
“Harry said the billiards room was down the second corridor to the left,” Casriel observed. “Perhaps he meant to the right.”
Lady Fogerty’s sprawling town house was well illuminated in the public areas. One floor up, only the occasional sconce had been lit.
“Perhaps we missed a turn,” Beatitude said.
Casriel set both glasses on a deal table positioned beneath a speckled pier glass. Beatitude liked being able to see Casriel both front and back at the same time. He had the renowned Dorning eyes, a soft periwinkle shade between blue and violet. He also had a set of shoulders that likely moved his tailors to raptures. The rest of him held up the promise of those shoulders—he was as tall and as muscular as a plowman.
He carried himself with the quiet self-possession of a lord, and his face was interesting rather than handsome. His features would become craggy with age, the eyebrows a bit bushy, his nose a tad beaky, but for now, he exuded such masculine appeal that Beatitude truly, honestly should not have been private with him.
Private with him again.
And yet, his greatest transgression was not robust physical appeal, or abundant good manners, or his title or even his lack of a willowy countess who nodded pleasantly at him across ballrooms, for that’s what willowy countesses did.
Grey, Earl of Casriel, was a kind man, and thus he threatened Beatitude’s resolve, even though she knew his path would diverge from hers permanently and soon.
“We appear to have lost our way,” he said.
They weren’t nearly lost enough, alas. “If we go back the way we came, we’ll come right eventually, my lord.”
“We passed a stairway,” he said, taking her by the wrist. “I thought I heard a quartet tuning up, though the viola was flat.”
Beatitude would not know a viola from a prancing unicorn. “Aunt Freddy said to thank you for restringing her harp.” Beatitude refused to be towed along like a tired toddler and laced her fingers with the earl’s instead.
“I enjoyed the harp as a hobby for many years, and your aunt sent me a fine old instrument.”
His lordship took the left turning at the next intersection, though Beatitude had no idea upon what mental map he’d based his choice.
“Aunt has a whole collection.”
He paused. “Of harps? How unusual, rather like your name is unusual.”
Even in the dim light of this chilly corridor, Beatitude could see that the earl was genuinely interested. She had never known Casriel to deviate from polite behavior, and she’d also never seen him dissemble.
Which was another grievous fault. Most of polite society believed flattery, white lies, and casual falsehoods were so many dance steps to be executed in the course of an evening’s entertainment. Casriel waltzed to his own tune, and Beatitude liked that about him.
“Aunt was never a very accomplished player,” she said, “but she took to rescuing neglected harps before I was born. She has two dozen at least. One doesn’t find much occasion to mention such a thing, lest one be associated with eccentricity.”
Casriel led Beatitude to the end of a corridor where, to her surprise, a set of steps descended to a well-lit passage below.
“I like a little eccentricity in a person,” he said. “Particularly in the elderly. They’ve earned the right to decide when convention suits them and when it’s so much foolishness. If we take those steps and then bear right, we ought to come out on the library side of the music parlor.”
“How do you do this?” Beatitude asked. “How do you keep your bearings with nothing to guide you?”
The question was about more than a search for the billiards room, and Casriel’s steady regard said he knew that.
He dropped her hand. “I was raised in the country, where a boy can roam freely for hours and never cross the same meadow twice. Keeping my bearings is second nature to me. You should precede me down, as if returning from a visit to the retiring room.”
She thought he’d ignore the innuendo in her question, but he stepped closer. “You must not allow a bad moment to overly trouble you, my lady. Lord Davington is kicking his heels in Paris, and if he should stir from that location, I will be certain you are alerted to his whereabouts.”
Lord Davington had made a nuisance of himself to Beatitude several weeks ago, importuning her rather forcefully in a dimly lit alcove. Friends had intervened in a timely and discreet manner, and Casriel had seen Beatitude home. He’d been plaguing her imagination ever since.
Though Lord Davington’s bad behavior had troubled her as well. “He was not the first to importune me, sir.”
“He will be the last.” Casriel spoke firmly.
“You are optimistic regarding the state of gentlemanly deportment in Mayfair.”
“I have six brothers, several of whom frequent the usual London social outings. I patronize three clubs and have memberships at several others. His lordship’s disgrace was made known to all in my ambit, and any man who attempts the same liberties will find himself the butt of unrelenting, even violent, contempt. If you ever have cause to again doubt your safety, my lady, you will apply to me, and the matter will be addressed.”
He might have been discussing the price of wool by the pound, though the very blasé tone of his remarks reassured Beatitude. Smacking a presuming disgrace like Lord Davington on the nose was of no great moment to Casriel, all in a day’s earl-ing.
“Thank you, my lord.”
He studied a shadowed portrait of some bewigged old fellow with a hound panting at his feet.
“Having six younger brothers has given me certain skills where arrogant striplings are concerned. No thanks are needed. The corridor below sounds deserted. You should rejoin the company.”
Beatitude should kiss him, a harmless little peck on the cheek that would convey her esteem, nothing more. A kiss needn’t be salacious, nor even flirtatious, though Casriel was looking like a man determined to not be kissed. Beatitude had gathered her skirts and had descended three steps when voices floated up from the passage beside the steps.
“He reminds me of a lumbering bear, though no bear ever had such lovely eyes. A pity that the Dorning eyes are wasted on such as him.”
Casriel drew back into the shadows above, leaving Beatitude alone on the stairway.
“He’s titled,” a second voice said. “One must always recall that Casriel is titled.”
Beatitude silently retraced her steps, joining the earl in the dim corridor.
“If he weren’t titled,” the first woman said, “he’d be just another farmer trying to wash the stink of the country from his boots. Papa says we must not consider him. Mama says Papa should leave the matchmaking to her.”
Casriel had gone as still as a distant mountain range.
“You’ll consider him,” the second woman said. “We both have to consider him, but can you imagine the wedding night?”
Beatitude was ready to fly down the steps and scold both of the simpering ninnyhammers into next week, but Casriel put a finger to her lips and shook his head. This talk clearly did not shock him, did not surprise him. He’d likely heard worse.
“They are in their third Season,” Beatitude said when the Arbuckle twins had gone tittering and gossiping on their way. “They grow pathetic, and their rudeness is becoming apparent to all.”
Casriel offered his arm as he escorted Beatitude down the steps. “My sisters’ perspective on a young lady’s come out has given me sympathy for those with whom I waltz. Twins would face a dilemma, choosing between loyalty to a sibling and the dictates of well-meaning parents. Family dilemmas are the very devil, don’t you think?”
In the distance between one floor and another, Casriel had changed the subject, dismissed several insults, and shown compassion that was damnably appropriate.
“They are well dowered,” Beatitude said. “This too is becoming common knowledge. That the twins haven’t secured matches in three years of trying reflects poorly on them.”
“Then we should pity them. The library is that way and the music room to the right.” He bowed, which was Beatitude’s cue to curtsey and leave him to his chivalry.
She was tempted to quit the gathering altogether. Miss Henderson was scheduled to play her flute after the interval. The poor woman ought to have been encouraged to focus on her needlepoint for the sake of London’s hearing.
Beatitude instead returned to the music room and found a seat among the other widows and wallflowers, who were, after all, the best company to be had.
“Nobody wants to sit with those two,” Miss Pansy Miller said, stealing a glance across the audience. “They can stand about smiling at each other until their dimples fall off, and not a bachelor in the house will approach them.”
“Exactly what they deserve,” Mrs. Palmyra Whitling whispered, nodding behind her fan toward the far side of the room. “Turned up their noses at my nephew Lucas, when the boy’s due to come into five thousand a year and a darling little manor house.”
The objects of this talk were none other than the Arbuckle twins, who were indeed fanning themselves and chatting gaily two obvious yards from the men’s punchbowl.
“They’re young,” Beatitude said. “We were all young once, and I for one was prone to foolishness.”
“Foolishness is understandable,” Mrs. Whitling retorted, “but rudeness… Ah, they’re to be rescued.”
The Earl of Casriel, lone among all the gentlemen, was bowing over Miss Drusilla Arbuckle’s hand and then treating her sister to the same politesse. While Beatitude watched, he led them to seats in the third row, where his younger brother rose and greeted them.
“I’ve always liked the Dorning boys,” Miss Miller said. “Their mamas put the manners on them.”
“And that Casriel,” Mrs. Whitling replied, fanning herself with her program, “is no longer a boy.”
Casriel was a gentleman. A true, honest, kind gentleman, and Beatitude must stop thinking about him or she’d go mad.
She left off pretending to study the bouquet on the piano as the earl solicitously assisted Miss Drusilla Arbuckle into her chair. Beatitude hadn’t meant to see that, hadn’t meant to catch the earl’s eye, but his companions were the last of the guests to be seated.
Casriel winked at her—subtly, discreetly—but Beatitude caught that too.
* * *
“The situation isn’t awful,” Jonathan Tresham said, passing Grey a sheet of figures. “You’re solvent, treading water as they say.”
Tresham was a duke’s heir and a genius with figures. The latter capability had defined him entirely until recently, when marriage to Theodosia Haviland had brought a more balanced focus to Tresham’s outlook.
Grey considered Tresham a close acquaintance, not quite a friend. But then, even close acquaintances didn’t generally audit a man’s books for him, much less at no fee.
“Treading water won’t do,” Grey replied. “With Willow married, I still have five younger brothers who are also treading water. They need a start in life, and I’m the one who is supposed to provide it to them. Treading water won’t do when a landlord is responsible for every repair and improvement made to his tenant holdings. Treading water won’t serve when I’m to take a bride, and my finances will soon be dissected by that lady’s family.”
Tresham leaned back in his chair. “Have you chosen your countess? You were seen paying particular attention to the Arbuckle twins last night.”
“They wanted for company, and Sycamore likes them.” Not quite true. They wanted for husbands.
“They want for tutelage in ladylike deportment,” Tresham replied. “Theo says they gossip with each other like magpies. Your finances would pass muster with such as them.”
“Because of the title. I begin to understand my father more clearly.”
Tresham rearranged the papers. “One of the blessings of maturity, I suppose, is to gain insight into one’s father’s situation. Yours was a botanist, I believe.”
Botanist kindly skirted less charitable terms—eccentric, for example. “Papa named his children Grey Birch, Willow, Jacaranda, Ash, Oak, Hawthorne, Valerian, Sycamore, and Daisy. If he wasn’t a botanist, he was daft.”
Tresham set the figures on the desk. “Was he both?” Tresham’s father had been a rogue, indulging in every vice permitted to a duke’s spare, and a few forbidden to even those idle creatures.
“At the end, he was more daft than botanist, but you try raising nine children on the proceeds from one glorified sheep farm and see what’s left of your sanity.” Grey’s step-mother had certainly parted with her composure somewhere between sons number three and four.
“Nine is a lot of children.” Tresham’s observation bore an air of curiosity, but then, he was newly married and doubtless fascinated by the privileges attendant to that station.
“Nine is too many. Ye gods, what if I had more than two sisters? Do you know what an earl’s daughter requires in the way of a dowry these days?” Grey knew—he’d done that calculation many times—and he hadn’t half those funds at his disposal though they’d doubtless be needed.
Tresham rose. He was exquisitely attired, while Grey was in shirt-sleeves, his cuffs turned back, his waistcoat a plain blue affair chosen for comfort rather than style. All of his waistcoats were blue, because simple gold accessories went well with blue, and yet, he had favorites among the lot.
“I am acquainting myself with what’s required for a duke’s daughter,” Tresham said. “Diana will be raised as if she were my own, and Seraphina will soon make her come out.” The new Mrs. Tresham had brought a daughter and a younger sister to the union, and Tresham, naturally, had taken on the expenses incurred by both.
Naturally for him.
He wandered around the estate office, pausing to admire a painting of Durdle Door. “Who is the artist? This is not the typical seascape.”
“I painted it. My brother Oak is the real talent, though.” Oak had never tried his hand at the peculiar formation on the Dorset coast that looked as if a dragon were drinking from the sea. “If you were in my shoes, what would you do to improve your finances?”
Tresham moved on to the landscape of Dorning Hall, with the abbey ruins crumbling in the distance.
“I’m not a farmer, Casriel, and your situation is mostly agrarian. Some people advise selling off acres, but in your case, those acres produce income. Others advise borrowing to invest. As a peer, you cannot be jailed for unpaid debt, so the strategy isn’t particularly risky, but you are honorable, which means you would never walk out on a commercial venture simply because it proved costly.”
If Jonathan Tresham had no idea how to improve the earldom’s finances, then the conundrum could not be solved.
“You don’t mention marrying for money.”
Tresham’s next distraction was a set of shepherd’s pipes made for Grey when he’d been a boy. “One doesn’t want to state the obvious, Casriel. You have a title, you are solvent, you have no direct heir, and you’re in London for the Season.”
Grey hadn’t lasted the whole Season the previous spring. He’d grown too damned homesick and had lacked the fortitude to face the house parties. The mere stink of London—horse droppings, coal, and mud—had brought all of last year’s failure rushing back.
I am turning into my father. “I watched while the title-hunters and matchmakers tried to ensnare you,” Grey said, rising to take the pipes from Tresham’s grasp. “I found a reason to be grateful that I’m a mere earl, not a duke’s heir or a marquess. These are fragile, and they have sentimental value.”
Tresham’s gaze fell on the pile of figures in the center of Grey’s blotter. “You don’t have to marry at all. If ever an earl had abundant spares, it was your late father.”
“Who wanted nothing more than to spend his life communing with trees.”
“I happened.” The plain truth, and not even that unusual a truth among British aristocracy or courting couples regardless of station. Except that Mama and Papa hadn’t been courting.
Tresham was at a loss for words, which should have been a small victory for earls everywhere, but a tap on the door interrupted the moment.
The butler stepped into the room and bowed. “A lady to see you, my lord. She’s brought a harp.”
Grey rolled down his sleeves. “If she has wings and a halo, tell her I’m not at home.”
Tresham snorted. “His lordship is hunting for a countess and cannot be distracted by celestial intercessors.”
Crevey had served the Dorning family since he’d been a boot-boy back in Dorset. He was doubtless withholding the woman’s name out of discretion.
“I’ll show her to the family parlor, my lord, and tell the kitchen to send up a nice tray. You won’t want to keep her waiting.”
“Is she pretty?” Tresham asked that ungentlemanly question.
“None of your business.” Grey slipped plain gold sleeve buttons into his cuffs, though he couldn’t help but hope the Countess of Canmore had come to call. He liked her, though he must not court her and must not mislead her.
“Why not the formal parlor?” Tresham asked.
Crevey sent Grey a look, bowed, and withdrew.
“The formal parlor faces the street.” Grey shrugged into his morning coat. “If a lady calls on me, I’d like the option of keeping the visit private, rather than advertise my guest’s identity to any passerby.”
Tresham batted Grey’s hands aside and began doing up his coat buttons. “You’re going about this marriage business all wrong.”
“How many weeks have you been married?”
“I’ve been a ducal heir since childhood. You should marry the lady whom you can’t imagine spending the rest of your life without. If she’s marrying you on the same terms, all will be well.”
“I recall a certain gentleman who approached the business with a list and with an advisor from among the widows. He had criteria, a schedule, an objective, and a complete disregard for matches based upon sentiment.”
Tresham stepped back and held his arms wide. “And look at that fellow now. In charity with life, devoted to wife and family, a friend to mankind.”
“And so bloody humble about his undeserved good fortune,” Grey muttered, examining his reflection in the cheval mirror.
“That is a disgraceful waistcoat, by the way,” Tresham said. “I can give you the name of my tailor.”
But not the means to pay the man. “The blue goes well with my eyes. Thank you for your efforts, Tresham, and give mankind a great big friendly kiss on the cheek for me.”
Grey saw Tresham off at the front door and turned his steps to the family parlor, where—he hoped—her ladyship might have brought him another harp to be restrung. He’d chosen his oldest blue waistcoat for comfort, and also because it reminded him of her ladyship’s eyes.
His hopes were doomed, as it turned out. The harp was a disaster and Lady Canmore nowhere to be seen. Mrs. Fredericka Beauchamp—her ladyship’s Aunt Freddy—had taken Grey’s favorite reading chair and demolished half the tea tray by the time he joined her.
“Casriel,” she said, half a biscuit in her hand. “Have a seat. This one’s in bad condition, but I’ve every confidence you can put it to rights. These biscuits are too dry. Pour a tired old woman a cup of tea, and I’ll tell you all about my friend here.”
Casriel wanted to return to Tresham’s figures, to visit his horse, to sit down to a meal of more than biscuits and sandwiches. He instead took the place across from Mrs. Beauchamp.
“Ma’am, a pleasure to see you. Tell me about that little beauty, for I’m sure it’s a tale worth sharing.”
Mrs. Beauchamp finished her biscuit, took a sip of tea, and launched into a recitation that took up the next hour of Grey’s afternoon.