Sebastian Stockbridge, Viscount Huntington, was in his study going over the accounts and nursing a touch of hangover when his butler scratched lightly at his door. "Come," he called absently.
The butler entered and hovered.
Sebastian looked up at last. "What is it, Meeks?"
"There is a Mr. George Winston, Esquire who requests an audience, my lord."
Sebastian frowned. "A solicitor? He's not one my solicitors, is he?"
"No, my lord."
Sebastian thought it over. "Did I seem excessively intoxicated to you when I came in last night, Meeks?"
"Not excessively, my lord, no."
"Did I appear to be laboring under any sort of distress?"
Comprehension dawned. "I'm certain this has nothing to do with your evening, my lord."
Relief flickered over Sebastian's face. "In that case, you may show him in."
The butler bowed. "Very good, my lord. Where should I put the--uh--females?"
Sebastian stared at his butler blankly. "Did you mention females?"
Meeks cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I may have failed to mention that the solicitor arrived with two females."
Sebastian studied the butler uneasily. "This is very bad news, isn't it Meeks?"
"As to that, my lord, I couldn't say. Mr. Winston did mention that his business had to do with a will, my lord."
"A will," Sebastian echoed blankly. "And he brought two females with him? How old?"
The butler thought it over. "A young lady and a woman I presume to be her companion or governess."
Sebastian sighed irritably, but it was obvious the only way to get to the bottom of the mystery was to speak to the solicitor. Finally, he waved the butler off. "You can seat the child and her nanny in the parlor--and have some refreshment brought. And escort Mr. ---uh--whatever the hell his name was in here."
The butler bowed again. "I already took the liberty of showing them into the parlor and ordering refreshment. I will fetch Mr. Winston."
Mr. Winston, it transpired, was a stout, elderly barrister, and it seemed that it was he who was laboring under some sort of distress. Despite his attempt to behave with all dignity, Sebastian couldn't help but notice the man was visibly shaken when he entered the study, sweating profusely despite the chill of the season and looked more than a little relieved that Lord Huntington had agreed to see him. He took the hand Sebastian held out in both of his and wrung it for a good few minutes before he seemed to collect himself and released it, looking around for a seat.
"How may I help you?" Sebastian asked politely once he had seated himself, although the sense of impending disaster that he'd felt from the moment Meeks mentioned the visitor had only grown deeper when the man had appeared.
Mr. Winston allowed a faint smile. "I've come on my client's behalf, Lord Dermot Marshall."
Sebastian's brows rose. "Dermot? Good, God! He is barely three and thirty, if that much, for he and I were at Cambridge together and I am only a couple of years younger than he. You're not saying--?"
Mr. Winston looked suitably solemn for one bearing bad tidings. "Alas, we fear so. As you may or may not have known, Lord Marshall took it into his head to go off adventuring in the wilds of the colonies about eighteen months ago. He has not been in communication with us in almost a year--he was in the uncharted territories when last he sent word to us--and despite every effort, we've had no luck in tracking him down."
Sebastian rose abruptly and paced to the hearth, fiddling unnecessarily with the fire poker while he collected his thoughts. He hadn't seen Dermot in nigh two years, but they had been the best of friends since their school days together--or so he had thought. He had certainly not heard that Dermot had taken it in his head to go off to the Americas, though--not that he could recall. "And you fear foul play?" he asked slowly.
"The possibility exists, but from what he wrote, the territories are fairly wild--anything, or even nothing, may have happened. All that I can say for certain is that sufficient time has passed with no word that I felt that I must implement his wishes."
Sebastian turned to look at the man in surprise. "His last will and testament? Surely you are being precipitate in executing his will when you've no solid evidence that he is--that anything has happened?"
Mr. Winston looked uncomfortable. "It's not--precisely his will--but his affairs must be put in order. I feel confident that I, and my partners, can continue to handle his financial affairs and his estate. It is his orphaned child who requires--uh--parental care."
Sebastian felt his jaw sag in stunned disbelief. "His child? I didn't even know he had wed!"
Mr. Winston reddened. "Well, my lord, as to that, he didn't. The girl is a--uh--legacy of a youthful indiscretion. But when the girl's mother died some years ago, he took her in to rear her himself and had the paperwork done up so that if he did not wed and produce an heir, she would inherit. The thing is," he added quickly, "he held you in the highest regard. And he has requested that guardianship of his daughter pass to you in the event that he is not here to fulfill his parental obligations and see her suitably settled."
"I see," Sebastian said tightly, setting the poker down and moving back to his seat behind his desk. "If that isn't just like Der," he muttered. "Running off and leaving someone else to deal with his mess!"
Mr. Winston blinked, paling noticeably. "I beg your pardon, my lord, but Miss Kathryn is a lovely young lady...."
Sebastian cut the barrister off with a sharp motion of his hand. "She may well be, Mr. Winston, but as it happens, I am not wed--I've no desire to do so simply to provide the chit with a home and, I don't mind telling you my reputation isn't the best. I'm not only ill suited for the role of guardian, I am not prepared ... Even if I wished to be, which I don't mind telling you, I don't."
The solicitor's shoulders slumped. He shook his head sadly. "I feared as much. Poor child."
Sebastian stared at the man uncomfortably. "She has other relatives...?"
Mr. Winston shook his head sadly. "Nay. Not a one. A few distant cousins on her father's side, but ...." He shrugged. "They were not best pleased that he took the girl in and made her his heir. I hated to turn her over to them ...."
Sebastian frowned. "Where has she been staying all this time?"
"At Lord Marshall's country estate, but you must see as well as I do that that simply will not do at all--to leave her there with no one but Miss Shirley and a gaggle of servants? I would take her in myself, but my wife and I are very old to be trotting after a young girl."
Sebastian sighed irritably, but he realized he was lost. He would have to do something for Dermot's child. He couldn't simply turn his back on her.
Perhaps, he thought a little hopefully, he could convince one of his sisters to take her in? Fanny was good hearted, and a very motherly sort.
She had a half dozen girls of her own, though, and the eldest just out this year. She would not be thrilled to take another under her wing when she already had her hands full.
Amelia he dismissed. He wouldn't wish her on his worst enemy. He couldn't in good conscience push the child off with a cold fish like that.
He shook the thoughts off. He was certain something would come to him. Sighing, he stood. "Dermot was a dear friend. I will do what I can for his child."