"Letter for you, my lord. It was delivered here by a solicitor's clerk." Felbridge, trusted servant to Maximilian Stanforth, Fifth Marquess of Lydon, tapped gently on the library door before offering the heavy cream-colored missive to the man seated at the desk behind a mound of papers.
"Thank you, Felbridge." The marquess raised one quizzical dark brow as he took the letter and opened it. Felbridge, his grizzled face impassive under his lordship's penetrating gaze, stood woodenly while his master hastily scanned the contents.
Long accustomed to his master's work habits, Felbridge would ordinarily never have intruded upon his lordship. Whenever the marquess retreated to the library, he worked with the same intensity that he played, and he did not take kindly to interruptions once he was immersed in the morning's affairs.
There were some aspects about this particular letter, however, that were unusual enough to warrant special consideration. First and foremost, the handwriting was obviously that of a woman. That in itself was not surprising, for his lordship, rich, handsome, and dashing, with a past murky enough to intrigue even the most romantic of ladies, was frequently the recipient of missives from the fair sex--some discreet, some not so discreet. These other missives were usually heavily scented and the handwriting full of ornate whirls and flourishes calculated to entice the reader. This script, on the other hand, was purposeful rather than graceful, and the paper, though of the finest quality, was plain and businesslike, as though the writer were doing her best to disguise rather than emphasize her femininity. There was, however, no mistaking the sex of the correspondent.
Not possessing any sisters, cousins, aunts, or female relatives of any sort, Lord Lydon never received anything but letters of assignation or admiration from the fair sex and certainly nothing of a serious nature. When the letter arrived, Felbridge had been intrigued in spite of himself and, like his master, was extremely curious as to the nature of this communique.
"My lord," the letter began, "Having been informed by my late father's solicitor that you have been appointed to act as guardian to me and to my brother William, I naturally anticipated your immediate arrival at Harcourt. As we have had no word from you, 1 assume that you are at present out of town or seriously indisposed. This letter is merely to inform you that we shall remain at Harcourt until such time as you have returned from the country or recovered from your indisposition. We look forward to your calling upon us in the near future upon the assumption of your duties. Sincerely, Charlotte Winterbourne.
"Of all the ..." Lord Lydon hurled the letter to the floor. Rising, he pushed his chair back from the desk, strode over to the fireplace, where he grabbed the poker and jabbed vigorously at the logs smoldering in the grate. After a few seconds of prodding they burst into flame. He returned the poker to its place with a clang and began to pace the carpet. "Damned impertinent..." Then, catching sight of his hovering servant, he halted his pacing. "Just listen to this, Felbridge. Have you ever heard such impudence?" He read the letter aloud, mimicking the shrill and haughty tones of his mother, the now deceased Marchioness of Lydon, with such accuracy that Felbridge was unable to suppress an appreciative grin. In truth, the tone of the letter sounded very much like that of his lordship's demanding mother, and there was nothing so likely to set his lordship's teeth on edge as a reminder of either one of his parents, not that Felbridge blamed him. Neither one of Lord Lydon's parents had ever wasted a moment's thought or concern on their only son, consigning him from birth to the supervision of nurses and tutors, most of whom could have cared less about their unfortunate charge.
Only Felbridge, undergroom at the time, had sensed that beneath the lad's pranks and temper tantrums was a lonely little boy desperate for attention from someone, anyone. Admiring the lad's pluck, he had taken it upon himself to befriend his young master. It had not been easy, for Maximilian, unaccustomed to genuine interest, had naturally been suspicious of the groom's interest in him and had tried Felbridge's temper mightily in an effort to discover his motive. But the groom had withstood these tests with a patience and firmness that had eventually won the boy's trust.
Soon the staff at Lydon Court learned that if that hellion, as he was most frequently referred to, was missing, he could be found helping Felbridge in the stables. No matter what anyone said, Maximilian insisted on helping his newfound ally with his duties. "But I like to help you with your work," he would protest when Felbridge, embarrassed by this state of affairs, would remonstrate with him and attempt to explain the master/servant relationship. "You're my friend."
And so they had remained friends, though as the years went by, Maximilian learned that it was more comfortable for Felbridge if they observed the master/servant role when others were present. It was a friendship that had been tested time and time again. Under the groom's tutelage. Max had gained some degree of maturity as he grew from a rebellious boy into an adventurous young man, but he retained a wild streak that drove him to challenge every figure of authority that crossed his path, from his coldly correct father to the masters of Eton and Oxford, until finally the marquess, thoroughly fed up with trying to instill the proper behavior in his son, had thrown him out and cut him off without a penny.
Undaunted, Max had sold his string of hunters as well as his superbly matched bays and booked a passage for himself on a ship bound for Calcutta. Taking his sudden change in fortune in stride, he suffered no real regrets except the prospect of bidding farewell to the only true friend he had, but Felbridge, equally unable to part with his master, had refused to be left behind. The two of them had gone off to conquer the Indian subcontinent together.
And conquer it they had. In the slightly freer society of England's most profitable colony, where many of its members had suffered a fate similar to Maximilian's, his adventurous spirit was appreciated, even encouraged. He flourished in a way that would never have been possible in the rigid confines of the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the Upper Ten Thousand.
The clever mind that had once been derided by schoolmates bent on mindless amusement and jealous of his seemingly effortless academic brilliance, was put to good use. Max quickly made a name for himself among the merchants and bankers, who came to rely on his astuteness. In a very short while he had amassed a considerable fortune and, had he wished to, could have lived in far greater opulence and splendor than he had had back in England. However, he preferred to remain in the simply furnished bungalow that had been home since his arrival in Calcutta.
The allure of learning foreign customs, coupled with the challenge of life in an exotic country, was exactly suited to Maximilian's adventurous nature. He flourished in the atmosphere of intrigue among the local rajahs and the undercurrent of tension between the British and the local inhabitants, the military and the East India Company. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, he had no particular desire to return to England to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. To him, the enormous wealth he had acquired as a result of his dealings with the local princes, who trusted him more than they did most other Englishmen, was mostly irrelevant--a mere by-product of an existence that was more stimulating and therefore much more enjoyable than the one he had left behind in England.
He had little contact with, and no regrets for, those he had left behind. When five years after he had left England a letter arrived to inform him that his mother had succumbed to a putrid fever, it had as little effect on him as the news that the Prince of Wales had been declared Regent. In fact, to Maximilian, the Marchioness of Lydon was, in many ways, a more remote personage than the Prince whose rebellious stance toward his family was so much like his own.
It was only when his father died, having suffered a disastrous fall on the hunting field, a year after his wife that Max returned home. Forced by his new responsibilities as Marquess of Lydon he took up residence at Lydon Court and visited his other considerable properties, where he spent the minimum amount of time necessary. He had drawn the line, however, at immuring himself in the family mansion in Grosvenor Square, preferring to live in simpler bachelor quarters in Curzon Street while renting the imposing town house to wealthy tenants who wished to cut a dash during the Season.
If the new Marquess of Lydon had been less than enthusiastic about returning to the rigid and insular world of the ton, it had not suffered the same reservations about him. Handsome, athletic, and wealthy beyond belief, Lord Lydon had been mobbed from the moment of his reappearance. However, he had been entirely unmoved by the sensation he was causing and, if anything, his popularity only increased his cynicism toward the fashionable world. The only people who did not welcome him with open arms were the mamas of eligible young ladies. They were quick to recognize a dedicated bachelor when they saw one and were well aware of the dangers threatening their susceptible daughters in the form of a charming man with a romantic past whose heart had apparently never been touched by a female.
The marquess was delightfully attentive to all attractive women, spreading his favors and admiration equally among all the beauties of the ton, but it was abundantly clear that he had not the slightest intention of settling down now, or ever. Therefore, mothers bent on marrying off their daughters did their best to keep them out of his dangerously disturbing presence in order to concentrate on more likely prospects.
The same could not be said for a group of dashing young matrons to whose lives Lord Lydon added a good deal of spice. With a past spent in exotic places and possessing a daringly unconventional nature, he offered a delightful contrast to their husbands, whose daily routines of clubs and ballrooms, and dubious accomplishments--an exquisitely tied cravat or a well-chosen waistcoat--could not compete with all that the intriguing Lord Lydon had to offer.
The marquess's pursuit of these beauties was bold to the point of impudence. His reckless disregard for the sensibilities of the fashionable world was a welcome antidote to their rule-bound existences. Whispering to each other about his dangerous reputation, they vied for his attentions which, short-lived though they might be, were intoxicating enough to be well worth the risk. In no time, the Marquess of Lydon was as well known in London as he had been in India. His exploits, both athletic and amatory, were the talk of clubs and drawing rooms from St. James's to Berkeley Square.
Through it all, the one remaining constant in Max's life had been the loyal Felbridge, who had followed him uncomplainingly from Calcutta to Bombay, Benares to Madras, negotiating with warring rajahs or wealthy merchants, and at last back to England with its painful memories of a lonely boyhood and a restless, unhappy youth.
"She is not making the usual complaint that females do against you, my lord." Felbridge's weather-beaten features remained impassive, but there was a twinkle in the bright blue eyes alert and intelligent under the shaggy brows.
Max grinned. "No, but she certainly seems to be in a pet about something. Winterbourne ... Winterbourne ..." He frowned, trying to recall precisely why the name was so familiar to him. "Of course!" He shook his head at his own stupidity. "She must be Hugo's daughter. But why on earth ,.." Again the puzzled frown descended as he racked his brains for some explanation of the outraged epistle he had just received.
Then, suddenly, enlightenment dawned. "What a nodcock I am! Hugo must have stuck his spoon in the wall. I thought 1 had not seen him at Brooks's of late and I naturally assumed that he was rusticating, but apparently not." Now that he gave the matter some thought, however, the marquess realized that during their entire acquaintance he had never known his customary whist partner to leave the metropolis.
Hugo, Earl of Harcourt, was a plainspoken though retiring man whose regular round of existence was confined to his lodgings in Mount Street, his clubs, and Parliament, where he devoted his time and energies to the political issues of the day. Rarely seen at the theater, the opera, or other popular haunts of the ton, he was an anomaly among his peers, a hard-working man who took his responsibilities seriously and who put his considerable intellect to work for the good of his country. His single indulgence was the lengthy and triumphant bouts of cards that had made him a legend at Brooks's. It was there that he had begun his unlikely friendship with Lord Lydon.
Vastly different in character, the two men had developed a high regard for one another's card-playing abilities. This had slowly blossomed into a recognition of the lively intelligence that distinguished each of them from his fellows. They made a formidable team at the gaming table and equally formidable opponents in any sort of discussion that might arise, be it economic, political, or philosophical. As time passed, they spent less and less time playing cards and more and more in debating the poor laws, taxation, and the vexing question of a standing army. From topics of general interest and concern, they had gradually proceeded to those of a more personal nature. It was during one of these conversations that the earl alluded to his children and his anxiety over their welfare.
"Charlotte is a bright, capable little thing, but she has her hands full with William. Cecil, pompous fool that he is, would not be of the slightest use to either of them should something happen to me," he mused aloud as he and Maximilian were taking each other on in a game of piquet one afternoon.
"Mmmm," Lord Lydon murmured vaguely as he studied his hand.
This was all the encouragement Harcourt had needed, his customary reticence momentarily overcome by his very real worries and the opportunity to lay them before someone whose advice he could rely on. "There is no one else in the family, you see, and after William, Cecil is the heir. A more self-righteous prig you could never hope to see, and yet..." The earl paused to scrutinize the card Max had just laid down on the baize-covered table. "And yet, there is something I do not quite like about the man. He is a havey-cavey sort of fellow for all his mealy-mouthed ways."
'Then you see what I mean. It would never do to leave the children in his care should I meet an untimely end. I can do nothing about the entail, but I do have some control over their guardianship and naturally I shall designate someone whose integrity I can rely upon, someone who can stand up to Cecil."
"Naturally," Lydon echoed as he laid another card on the table.
Max's noncommittal reply was not entirely discouraging and Hugo, who possessed little or no faith in the intelligence of most of his fellows and had already mentally cataloged and rejected everyone else he could think of, was becoming so desperate that even this lukewarm response was enough to encourage him. "Would you be so kind? I'm sure there will not be the least need because I am strong as a cart horse, but of course one never likes to tempt fate."
"Of course." And that had been the extent of the conversation that had landed Maximilian in this muddle. Obviously the earl had not been as strong as a cart horse and now here he was, saddled with--how many children was it? The marquess glanced uneasily at a heap of unanswered correspondence piled high on a corner of his desk. Undoubtedly the full particulars of the case lay buried somewhere in there, thoroughly explained in an official document from Harcourt's solicitor. For the past several weeks Lydon had been too involved in raising capital for his newest venture to pay much attention to anything else and now he was being suitably punished for this lapse.
The marquess sighed as he pulled the pile of letters toward him and began to sort through it. "Thank you, Felbridge. You were quite right to bring this letter to my attention, though I wish you had not, for now there is nothing to do but attend to it." Max pulled out a heavy sheet of crested stationery, scrawled a few lines, and handed it to the waiting Felbridge. "Here, take this to Mr. Sedgewick in his chambers at Gray's Inn, if you would, please. He will take care of it."
Having consigned the welfare of Lady Charlotte Winterbourne and her brother to the care of his solicitor. Lord Lydon returned to his own more pressing business concerns without a second thought for the wards he had inadvertently gained.