“How the hell did he let it become such a disaster?” Jack said, pushing aside the ledger. Every time he’d looked at the bloody thing he’d held out a faint hope that circumstances weren’t as bad as they appeared. And every time he was wrong.
The large, leather-clad account book was one of several piled haphazardly before him on the library desk. On the other side of that pile sat Atticus Lindsey, the longtime estate manager at Stonefell and a truly estimable man. He had to be, because he’d put up with years of financial messes and managed to ameliorate some of the worst effects. But even Lindsey’s business acumen and dedication to the family could no longer stave off the inevitable.
Thanks to Jack’s uncle, the previous marquess, Stonefell Hall stood on the brink of ruin, and the Easton family fortunes weren’t far behind.
His estate manager struggled to articulate some positive news—and failed.
“It’s all right, Lindsey,” Jack finally said. “I know we’re teetering on the edge of the abyss. The only question now is how to walk ourselves back from it.”
The middle-aged widower, whose kind face and gentle manner were combined with a whip-smart mind, pulled a grimace. “There are a few things we can try, my lord. We can take down the remaining viable timber in the home wood, for one. The income from that would stave off the creditors till the next quarter.”
Jack hated that idea. So many noble trees had already been lost. Stonefell’s woods had once been the finest in this part of Yorkshire, but they were now a pale imitation of their former glory.
“We’ll do that only as a last resort,” he said. “I’m hoping the harvest will be better this year. The revenues from that should take us well into next year.”
Lindsey eyed him. “Of course, sir.”
In other words, good luck with that, you bloody fool.
He certainly wouldn’t have blamed Lindsey if he’d said those words out loud. Jack had rarely involved himself in estate business, even though he’d known for two years that the Lendale title would fall directly to him. That was when Jack’s father, heir to his older brother, had died of apoplexy, brought on by a life of drinking and excess. His father had evaded responsibility whenever possible. Even in death he’d run true to form and had left Jack to pick up the pieces of a family all but in ruins.
As for the recently deceased marquess…well, Uncle Arthur had been a kind man, loyal to family and friend alike. And he’d been more than generous to Jack, always providing him with a safe haven from his warring parents and helping him achieve a military career by purchasing his commission.
But as a man of business and a caretaker of the family fortune and legacy, the third Marquess of Lendale had been an absolute disaster.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” Lindsey said in a tone warm with sympathy. “I wish I had better news to impart, but the tenant farmers are barely holding on as it is. We’ll need years of good harvests to make up for the ground we’ve lost.”
Jack repressed the impulse to bang his head on the pile of ledgers. Maybe if he did that long enough the figures would somehow untangle themselves. He’d spent so many late nights pouring over the damn numbers, searching for even a thread of good news, he could barely see straight.
For years he’d tried to escape all the family drama by focusing his energies on his military career. He’d worked his arse off, climbing up the chain of command until serving directly under Wellington himself. And even though the fortunes of war were often bleak, he’d loved his work. If fate had decreed otherwise, he’d still be in the army.
But fate had decreed otherwise, and now he was someone he’d never wanted to be—the Marquess of Lendale. The title had been shared by a disreputable group of aristocrats more known for their spendthrift, rakish lifestyles than for nurturing the blessings graced by God and king.
Well, he’d be damned if he was the one to bring the estate crashing down around his mother and sister. They deserved more than that, as did the tenants and staff who worked at Stonefell and in the mansion in London.
And he could never forget Lia and Rebecca, who were as much his responsibility as anyone else under his care.
“What about that idea you floated in your letter to me a few weeks back, when I was in Lincolnshire?” he asked Lindsey.
He’d been there for the wedding of his closest friend, the Duke of Leverton, to the unconventional Miss Gillian Dryden. It had been a welcome respite from his problems, although their marriage had raised a tricky issue he had yet to work out.
Lindsey brightened. “You mean Stonefell’s potential for ore and coal mining? The surveys have yielded some very positive results, but in order to proceed, we need…”
“Additional investments,” Jack said grimly.
“Yes, sir, for more surveys and preliminary explorations. And to go ahead with any sort of comprehensive venture at this point, we would need a substantial investment.”
“Would selling the rest of the timber in the home wood be enough to get us started?” Jack loathed the very notion, but he’d be willing to make the sacrifice. A productive mining operation would not only provide jobs for his struggling tenants and villagers, it could alleviate the debts encumbering the estate.
“I’m afraid not,” Lindsey said with a regretful shake of the head. “There’s no doubt we need outside backers to establish a viable operation.”
But any investor worth his salt would want to see profits as soon as possible. No one would be inclined to invest if they had to wait several years until Jack restored the estate to health. There was another alternative, of course, but he wasn’t particularly thrilled about that one either.
He closed the ledger in front of him with a thud. “I think we’ve both depressed ourselves enough for one day, Lindsey. I’ll be traveling to London in a few weeks. I will speak to my bankers about finding potential—and patient—investors while I’m there.”
Lindsey stood up. “Very good, my lord. I can put out feelers to a few private investors when I’m next in Ripon, if you like.”
“Do that but quietly. We don’t need word getting around that things are as bad as they are.”
“As you wish.”
After Lindsey collected the ledgers and soft-footed his way out, Jack eyed the remaining work on his desk. It felt as if he’d been confined to the stuffy old room forever. Normally, his uncle’s library—his library now—was a favorite place to while away the time. It had always been a welcoming retreat, with its elegant Queen Anne furniture richly mellowed by age, a collection of books lovingly built up over the generations, and several truly impressive globes his uncle had acquired over the years. The handsome room spoke of the taste, wealth, and power of the Lendale line.
Today it felt more like a prison.
He stood and headed for the French doors, his hand automatically reaching out to spin the largest and oldest of the globes as he passed.
You really ought to sell that, old boy, along with the rest of them.
It just might come to that. Along with the antique volumes on the shelves, the globes would attract a pretty sum from a collector.
Shoving aside that unpleasant thought, he stepped onto the terrace, lifting his face to the late afternoon sun. It had been a cool, rainy summer, so even a hint of sunshine was welcome.
He gazed out over this little piece of his domain. The flower gardens behind the house had always been a pleasing mix of roses, flowering shrubs, and hedges. And although the roses still bloomed thick and full, and the ivy and honeysuckle twined lushly along the stone balustrades of the terrace, the garden was no longer up to its previous immaculate standards. The hedges looked a bit ragged, the roses verged on running wild, and the lawn was just a little too long. Old Merton, the head gardener, was doing his best, but Lindsey had been forced to let some outside staff go last year. Only the kitchen gardens were still in top shape, and that was thanks to Lia. According to the housekeeper, she diligently helped Merton tend the extensive herb and vegetable gardens that kept the house abundantly supplied.
Lia, what am I going to do with you?
Though he’d only returned to Stonefell two days before, he’d been avoiding her, which was a new and unwelcome development. Jack had loved the girl almost from the moment he’d met her, back when she’d been an engaging, mischief-prone toddler. Lia was family as far as he was concerned.
But she was also his friend, and a very good one. Although she was five years younger, Jack had long trusted her judgment. Lia was both funny and kind, but she also had an enormously practical head on her slim shoulders. After Lindsey, she knew more about the running of the estate than anyone. She’d grown up here, loving it with a fierce devotion that surpassed that of any member of the Easton family.
Unfortunately, that devotion to Stonefell was about to be poorly repaid. Of all the people on the estate, Lia and Rebecca Kincaid were the most vulnerable.
He couldn’t put off imparting the grim news any longer. He counted it as ironic that when he could finally see his dear friend as often as he wanted, he was doing everything he could to avoid her.
Using the gate at the bottom of the garden, he strode along the pretty, tree-lined lane that led to Bluebell Cottage. Once a small dower house, Uncle Arthur had converted it into a private abode for his mistress. It was far enough from the main house to be out of sight and out of mind, when necessary, but still close enough for the previous marquess to easily visit the once-notorious Rebecca Kincaid whenever he wished. It had always struck Jack as a medieval arrangement that was manifestly unfair to both Rebecca and her granddaughter. Of course, he’d grown used to the odd situation over the years, as had most in the neighborhood, especially those who depended on the estate for their livelihood. That the marquess had loved his mistress with an abiding passion had never been in doubt, and he’d expected everyone in his circle to accept her presence as an immutable fact of life.
Jack’s mother, naturally, had never accepted it. And now that he was the Marquess of Lendale, she expected him to do what she called the moral thing.
As he rounded a curve in the lane, the red slate roof of the cottage came into view, its old chimneys poking above the trees. More a small villa than a rustic abode, Bluebell Cottage was built with the sharp angles and pitched roof of the Jacobean era. Set well back from the lane and shaded by ash and sycamore trees, it was surrounded by an old-fashioned flower garden with a spectacular display of rosebushes. But unlike the larger garden at the main house, Bluebell’s flowerbeds were pristinely maintained, flourishing under an expert hand.
Lia’s hand. She’d always loved to garden and had never minded getting dirty and wet. As a little girl, she’d been Merton’s shadow, imitating his every move. Her enthusiasm and cheery ways had charmed the crusty old gardener, and almost everyone else at Stonefell Hall.
Jack had always believed Lia was the true reason Rebecca had finally been accepted by the estate staff and the locals. Setting up one’s mistress in the backyard wasn’t generally the done thing, but with Lia’s unwitting help, his uncle had pulled it off.
He rapped on the front door. After waiting a few minutes, he hammered again. One of the mullioned windows of the drawing room, to the right of the door, pushed open. Rebecca, her beautifully coiffed, salt-and-pepper hair, topped by a snowy white cap, leaned out.
“Ah, my dear Lord Lendale,” she said in an affectionate voice. “I haven’t a clue where Sarah is, or Lia, for that matter, and the maid has run down to the village to fetch some headache powders. But the door is open, so do let yourself in.”
She retreated with consummate dignity, shutting the window.
Jack couldn’t hold back a grin. Leave it to Rebecca to tell the new marquess to walk right in rather than condescend to answer the door herself. Her present position might be precarious but she had been the longtime lover of the Marquess of Lendale and once had been the most sought-after courtesan in London. Although a truly kind and charming woman, she never let the world forget who she was, nor who she once had been.
Not that he blamed her. She didn’t have anything else to hang on to now that the man she’d loved for so many years—the man for whom she’d given up so much—was dead.
Jack let himself into the low-ceilinged corridor that ran from the front of the house to the back. A narrow staircase halfway down the hall climbed up to the first floor, with its bedrooms and a private sitting room. It was a lovely old house, with intricate woodwork and paneling, as well as some truly fine plasterwork.
But it was in dire need of repair, especially the roof and chimneys.
He knocked briefly on the drawing room door, which was rather silly because Rebecca was expecting him. But she drew comfort from the formalities, and Jack wished her to know that she still had his respect and friendship, even if she had lost all else.
She moved to greet him. Now in her early sixties, she remained an extremely handsome woman, with a plump, comfortable figure and a welcoming manner. But despite her genuinely pleased smile, he saw sadness in her gaze and weariness in the faint web of wrinkles fanning out from her blue eyes. It had been over three months since his uncle’s passing, but Rebecca clearly still grieved. The poor woman had been, for all intents and purposes, the man’s wife. And yet she’d been denied even the solace of attending the church services or receiving the sympathy of family and friends.
“Aunt Rebecca, it’s good to see you,” Jack said, bending to brush a kiss against her cheek. He’d referred to her that way in private for years, which had always pleased his uncle.
“Dear boy, it is so good of you to call,” she said, waving him to the settee across from her high-backed chair. “Lia and I were beginning to quite despair of seeing you.”
“I apologize for not coming down yesterday. I find myself swamped in paperwork and an endless stream of… business.” He’d been about to say disasters.
“I’m sure you have a great deal of work to attend to, settling the estate and becoming familiar with your new responsibilities. If you need help, you must be sure to ask Lia. Sometimes I think she knows Stonefell as well as Mr. Lindsey.”
“She does,” he said with a smile. “By the by, where is she?”
Rebecca glanced at the watch pinned to her waist. “I’m surprised you didn’t run into her in the lane; she said she’d be home by now. She ran up to the stables to speak to the stableman about her mare. I think Dorcas may be in need of new shoes.” She hesitated. “If it’s not too much of a bother, that is.”
Jack’s uncle had always let Lia ride any horse she chose, even picking one out for her special use.
“You needn’t even ask.”
“Thank you,” she said, sounding relieved. “We hate to impose, but you know Lia wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t necessary.”
“Please don’t worry, Aunt Rebecca. Now, tell me how you’ve been. I hope you’re well.”
As they chatted for a few minutes about the usual mundane things like the weather, Rebecca was clearly making an effort to be cheerful. But Jack could tell it was a strain. His uncle had been the touchstone of her increasingly narrow and circumscribed life. Without him, she must feel her future uncertain.
“And how was your trip to Lincolnshire?” she asked. “I presume the Duke of Leverton’s wedding went off without a hitch.” Her carefully neutral tone didn’t fool Jack in the slightest.
“It was a small, private affair but very happy nonetheless. And I’m glad Lia’s not back yet because I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Yes, I expect you do,” she said with a rueful smile. “You want to know whether you should tell Lia that Gillian Dryden—the new Duchess of Leverton—is her cousin.”
He’d been struggling with that question for some weeks. Leverton was his closest friend, which meant Gillian would now be part of Jack’s life. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the fifth son of King George and brother to the Prince Regent. Because Lia was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York, the second son of the king, she and Gillian were cousins.
“Yes,” he said. “Naturally I knew I had to discuss the situation with you first. But you must understand there may come a point when Leverton and his duchess will visit Stonefell.”
Though dismay flashed across Rebecca’s features, her impressive discipline soon reasserted itself. “That’s to be expected, naturally. As you know, your uncle rarely entertained due to his health.” She forced a smile. “But such will not be the case with you, I’m sure. You will wish to entertain friends, as well as your mother and sister.”
Best to leave aside the issue of his family for the moment. “I’m not planning on rounds of large house parties.” Especially given how bloody expensive they were. “But we must at least anticipate the possibility.”
“I understand. And to set your mind at ease, Lia is aware that the royal dukes dispensed their favors rather widely.”
Jack almost laughed at the vagueness of her metaphor. Despite being a noted courtesan, Rebecca had always displayed a delicate attitude when it came to discussing scandalous behavior. In fact, she and his uncle had always reminded him of a rather fussy couple who’d been married forever. Emotionally, they certainly had been. Unfortunately, their steadfast devotion had counted for little in the eyes of the world and nothing in the eyes of the law.
For all his kindness, Uncle Arthur had done Rebecca a great disservice. He either should have married her long ago or said farewell, so she could have pursued wealthier patrons. Rebecca could have become a wealthy woman if she’d remained in London, selecting lovers who would have rewarded her with small fortunes. But his uncle had been too selfish to let her go and too weak to fight against his family’s opposition to their marriage.
“So Lia is aware that her situation is not unique?” he asked.
“Of course. It would be impossible not to be aware of the Duke of Clarence’s children, for instance, particularly because Mrs. Jordon once traveled in the same theatrical circles as my daughter.”
Rebecca’s mouth had pulled down in a distasteful little grimace, which clearly indicated her opinion of Clarence’s long-standing mistress and the mother of his numerous children. But that might also be resentment on her part; Clarence had acknowledged his by-blows and made some attempt to provide for them. Such had not been the case for Lia and her mother.
“But as a rule we do not discuss such matters,” she added. “The Duke of York has never even acknowledged Lia. And my daughter has always been loath to expose Lia to the sort of gossip that comes from contact with the royal dukes, preferring her to lead a more sheltered life in the country with me.”
For the last ten years, Lia’s mother, Marianne Lester, had been married to the manager of a popular acting troupe. They generally performed in the provinces, but Stephen Lester’s troupe had recently taken up a contract in London. Lia would love nothing more than to spend time with her mother, but Jack couldn’t help but feel relief that she’d remained safely at Stonefell. The theatrical environment was a hive of salacious scandal and gossip, not for an innocent girl like her.
“We’re agreed on that,” he said. “But it still leaves us with the issue of the Duchess of Leverton. I think we must soon tell Lia that she has a cousin who will wish to meet her, likely within the next few months. If we don’t, the duchess will eventually take matters into her own hands.”
The only reason Gillian probably wasn’t riding hell-bent for leather for Yorkshire at this very moment was because Jack had sworn the duke to a reluctant secrecy on the matter, at least for now. Once Gillian found out, there would be no stopping her.
“I suppose,” Rebecca said. “Although I fail to see how the relationship benefits Lia one bit. After all, the Duchess of Leverton, despite her illegitimate origins, is the daughter of aristocrats and royalty and has the bluest blood in the land. Whereas Lia…”
“Comes from good English stock and has a mother and grandmother who love her,” Jack interjected. Rebecca Kincaid had come from a family of prosperous merchants in London, and she would have made a respectable marriage if fate hadn’t set her on a different course.
Her warm smile rewarded him. “Thank you, Jack. You’ve always been so kind to us. No wonder my granddaughter worships the ground you walk on.”
Her observation made him mentally blink. It seemed an odd way to characterize Lia’s affection for him.
“Ah, thank you,” he said. “So I take it you do not wish to inform Lia about her connection to the Duchess of Leverton, or some of her other relations, at least for the time being?”
She nodded. “Yes. I must ponder the best way to approach the subject with my granddaughter. Lia must not be allowed to make assumptions about a relationship with the duchess, or make any demands on her. That will only lead to heartache for her. She can never travel in such exalted circles, nor should she have any expectation of doing so.”
Her assessment was likely correct. Unlike Gillian, Lia could never hope to ascend into the ranks of the aristocracy, or even the country gentry. Rebecca’s fondest wish had always been for Lia to make a respectable marriage with a local merchant or prosperous farmer, and Jack had always known that would be the kindest, happiest outcome for her. But even that future was in jeopardy, thanks to his uncle’s stupidity.
“Very well,” he replied. “I’ll defer to your judgment for now. But when the Levertons visit Stonefell, we must tell Lia the truth—if not before.”
Rebecca looked relieved, as if she’d been expecting an argument. “Of course, my dear boy. And thank you for trusting me.”
They heard a quick footfall out in the hall. A moment later the door opened and Lia rushed in.
“Oh, confound it, Jack,” she said. “I had no idea you were here. I ran down from the big house as soon as Merton told me he’d seen you cutting through the gardens.” She rested a hand on his arm and stretched up on her toes to give him a soft kiss on the cheek. “It’s shocking that I wasn’t here to greet you. Please forgive me.”
Jack stared down at her, slightly disoriented, as if someone had given him a knock on the brain-box.
He hadn’t seen her since his uncle’s funeral, when grief and worry had left her pretty face pinched and wan. Enveloped in mourning clothes and heavy shawls to keep out the chill spring rains, Lia had seemed almost like a sad child, sorely in need of a mother’s love and comfort.
Today, though, there was nothing childlike about her, and she was more than merely pretty. His Lia was now full-grown and simply beautiful.
She gazed up at him with peacock-blue eyes alight with affection. Her skin glowed with the warmth of the summer sun and the flush of her exertions. Her enchanting face, with its tip-tilted nose and lush pink mouth, was framed by silky dark hair, some of it failing haphazardly from the simple knot on top of her head. As for her figure, her faded green riding habit with its trim bodice showcased a graceful body that held more than its share of pleasing curves.
When the hell had Lia developed breasts that he actually noticed?
His visits to Stonefell had been rare these last three years, given the fact that he’d spent much of that time on the Continent with the army. In the meantime, his little friend had matured into a woman, with results that were rather astonishing.
Her brow creased and her smile slid into one of perplexity. “Jack, you look as if you don’t know me,” she said with a self-conscious laugh. Then her smile snuffed out completely. “Oh, am I being too familiar?”
She took a quick step back and dipped into a curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I let my enthusiasm run away with me.”
Her anxious response jolted him back to himself. He pulled her into a bear hug, all too conscious of how delightful her soft breasts felt against his body.
“Goose, of course not,” he said, planting a brief kiss on the top of her head before letting go. “I was just a bit surprised to see you, that’s all. You’re looking very well, I must say.”
She wrinkled her nose. “That’s a complete plumper. I look a wreck, but I didn’t want to take the time to change and risk missing you.”
Rebecca ran a critical eye over her granddaughter. “You do look rather disheveled, my love. I wasn’t aware you were planning on shoeing the mare yourself, but the soot on the hem of your habit would suggest you were.”
Lia burst into laughter, and the light, clear sound of it loosened the tangled knot in Jack’s chest that had moved in some weeks ago. He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed her laughter.
“I know,” she said. “But poor Markwith is so busy these days. I thought I’d help him by taking Dorcas down to the blacksmith and saving him the trouble of the trip.”
Jack mentally grimaced. In the last year his head groom had been forced to let go two stableboys. That Lia was now acting as a stable hand had the knot in his chest twisting tight again.
“I’m sorry, Lia,” he said. “You shouldn’t have had to do that.”
“You know I don’t mind,” she said as she folded herself onto the footstool at her grandmother’s feet. Rebecca reached out to stroke Lia’s thick hair. They were so close. With the death of Jack’s uncle, the two women truly now had only each other.
“Next time you need something, just tell me,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”
Her eyebrows arched up. “I will when you’re in residence. But that’s not very often.”
Rebecca gave her an admonishing tap on the shoulder. “That’s no way to speak to his lordship, my love.”
Lia’s eyes rounded with mock horror. “Oh, I do hope I haven’t offended him.” She gave him a comical bow, her nose almost touching the floor. “Forgive my impertinence, Lord Lendale, I beg of you.”
He shook his head. “Brat.”
She grinned. “Sorry, but I can’t help teasing. It’s just so good to see you.” She glanced over her shoulder at Rebecca. “We missed him greatly, did we not, Granny?”
“Indeed we did. But life is much changed these days, which is something we must all accept,” her grandmother said in doleful tones.
Might as well get it over with.
“Yes, and along those lines,” he said, “there’s some business I need to discuss with you.”
Rebecca perked up, looking hopeful, which made him feel even worse. He struggled to find words that would soften the blow.
After several fraught seconds, Lia breathed out an exasperated sigh. “Oh, blast. I thought so. It’s no surprise, Jack. Just get it out.”
“Ah, what exactly are you referring to?” He’d never discussed estate business with her.
“That your uncle left us destitute, of course, and that your mother wants you to kick us out to the lane. Evict us from Bluebell as soon as possible.”
When he simply stared at her, his mouth gaping open like a bumpkin’s, her eyebrow went up in a knowing, cynical lift.
“Right on both counts, I see,” she said. “How unlucky can we get?”